Autism Coverage Bill Fails

Senate's Move, House Panel's Inaction Anger Advocates

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, February 12, 2009; Page B07

RICHMOND, Feb. 11 -- The Senate has effectively killed a bill that would have required insurers to cover autistic children, pleasing business lobbies that argued against new mandates but enraging parents who vowed revenge at the polls.

The fight over mandating autism coverage has gathered intensity nationwide and resonated especially strongly in Loudoun County and other fast-growing areas of Northern Virginia with high numbers of children.

Anger about the bill's defeat late Tuesday was magnified by what appeared to be a flip remark by a Northern Virginia lawmaker who had offered qualified backing for the cause. Moments after the vote on the bill concluded a late session, Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) took the floor.

"I'd inquire of the clerk: Who won?" Saslaw said with a grin. "We had a pool going."

The Senate clerk replied with a smile: "That's not appropriate, senator."

Advocates of the bill thought Saslaw's question referred to a wager on the bill's fate.

"Our parents just felt like their kids were made some sort of a joke, an office wager," said Judith Ursitti, regional director for Autism Speaks, a nonprofit organization.

But Saslaw, who had attempted to broker a compromise on the autism bill, said yesterday that his joke was a victim of bad timing. The office pool he referred to, Saslaw said, concerned the hour at which the Senate's session would end. Saslaw said it was tradition to wager on the timing of "crossover," the final session when each chamber concludes work on legislation that must be referred to its counterpart. Saslaw said he regretted the bill's failure.

"I did everything I could to get this thing out of here," he said.

More than 100 people, including educators, lawmakers, and families with autistic children, assembled in July at a community center in Lansdowne on the Potomac to organize their campaign. They enlisted not only other parents of autistic children but also their friends in what became known as the Loudoun Project. They traveled by the busload to the capital and trooped to lawmakers' offices wearing huge buttons saying, "Autism Votes in Virginia," often with their autistic children in tow.

"We promised a daily presence," said Pasquale "Pat" DiBari, a Leesburg resident and early organizer. "We really went above and beyond to tell legislators our personal stories."

Allying themselves with Autism Speaks, parents entered about 20,000 supporters into their database, and they flooded lawmakers' inboxes with more than 7,000 e-mails, winning bipartisan backing from Dels. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) and David E. Poisson (D-Loudoun). Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Winchester) carried a bill in the Senate.

But the legislation met resistance from the business community, which argued that a recession was the worst time to impose a costly mandate.

"I'm very sympathetic to the parents and children caught up in this terrible condition," said Hugh Keogh, president of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. "[But] our numbers show a decreasing amount of employers who are able to offer health-care insurance every year, and mandates are a part of that."

Reginald N. Jones, a lobbyist for the Virginia Association of Health Plans, said one estimate suggested that the costs of autism coverage could be as much as $40 million a year in Virginia, despite a provision that would cap expenses at $36,000 per child per year.

"It would probably become the second most expensive mandate in Virginia, and maybe the first," Jones said.

The bill quickly met resistance. The House Commerce and Labor Committee took no action on it, infuriating advocates who noted the unpleasant irony that the bill suffered the same fate as some of their children. "To receive the silent treatment was really stunning," DiBari, 40, said.

Jodi Folta, 39, an accountant who lives in Ashburn, said advocates were mystified by the actions of Del. Thomas Davis Rust (R-Fairfax), a member of the Commerce and Labor Committee. Rust appeared to be a friend of the cause, turning up at a rally on the capitol grounds, but he showed no effort to advance it, Folta said.

"He's on our unhappy list," Folta said.

Rust did not respond to a message at his office seeking comment.

In the Senate, Vogel sought compromise by limiting the mandated coverage to children younger than 12. Saslaw cut the age further, to 6 years old. But efforts at compromise failed.

"I've struggled with this bill, and I think everybody here has struggled with this bill," said Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) before asking that the bill go back to the Finance Committee, where it would effectively die this year. "The legislative process is an ugly process, and this has been particularly ugly."

Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.

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