Governor signs Tom Whatley's bill mandating insurance coverage for autism therapy Back to All Articles »

Chip Brownlee
Auburn Plainsman
5/22/2017

MONTGOMERY  On Friday, Gov. Kay Ivey signed a bill that would mandate insurance companies in Alabama cover an effective, albeit expensive, therapy for Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The bill was sponsored in the State Senate by Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, who said he pushed the bill because of the growing Autism community in Auburn. More than 1-in-68 children have autism spectrum disorder in the U.S.

The Legislature approved the bill on Friday, which will force insurance companies to provide insurance coverage for an autism spectrum therapy called applied behavioral analysis therapy.

"This is one of the best bills we've ever signed," Whatley said. "This ABA therapy that they're now going to be able to have will open up a world of opportunity. It will do a lot of good things for Alabama."

Ivey signed the bill surrounded by Whatley; Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster; Rep. Jim Patterson, R-Meridianville; and Sen. Quinton Ross, D-Montgomery, who were all sponsors or strong supporters. Patterson filed the bill in the House.

Forty-five other states have already mandated the coverage. Alabama became the 46th to do so. The treatment can be highly effective in improving the social skills and behavior of children with autism when started early enough.

"It took Alabama from no coverage at all to probably in the top 12 or 15 even with having it capped at age 18," Whatley said.

The coverage can cost thousands of dollars a month if it isn’t covered by a family’s health insurance coverage. In Alabama, the ABA therapy was previously not covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield, the state’s largest provider.

"I was talking to one mother who had to sell a house in Tuscaloosa and move to a house that cost $100,000 less to be able to afford the therapy payments," Ivey said. "This bill is about the quality of life for wonderful children. This therapy does make a difference."

The bill faced fierce opposition from a few conservative lawmakers who were concerned that the mandate would force insurance companies to increase premiums and deductibles to make up for lost profits.

Those opponents, including the Business Council of Alabama and conservative Republicans in the State House, such as Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, who threatened to hold the bill up in his committee, said the bill would raise insurance premiums for the average family.

“The insurance companies are not going to pay for this coverage,” said Pittman, who was chair of the Senate General Fund committee. “The employer that normally pays the cost of the employee and the employee that covers their family will be paying these costs.”

Most other states have seen modest increases to premiums associated with mandates like this. Most of the increases are just between $1-4 a month.

Even with Pittman's opposition, strong political headwinds from activists and constituents pushed Legislative leadership to let the bill move forward. Dozens of supporters and parents with children on the spectrum flooded the State House over the past two weeks, urging lawmakers to pass the bill.

"This had a high profile," Ivey said. "You can't help it. It's an emotional situation. These young children, they came up and hugged me. They don't know me, but they want love. They're so expressive."

The bill became law with Ivey's signature and will go into effect in October.