- Associated Press - Saturday, April 18, 2015

ATLANTA (AP) - Each day as Gov. Nathan Deal plods through a stack of more than 300 bills passed by the 2015 General Assembly, Anna Bullard becomes just a tad more anxious.

When, she wonders, will he sign Senate Bill 1, turning what’s now just another piece of legislation into Ava’s Law - named after her little girl, and making Georgia the 41st state to require private insurance companies to cover therapy for children with autism?

April is Autism Awareness Month, so he’s expected to it before May 1. Deal has until May 12 to sign or veto bills.

Judith Ursitti of the Autism Speaks advocacy group said Mississippi and South Dakota recently passed autism insurance mandates. Georgia’s new law would cover therapy up to $30,000 a year for children age 6 and younger.

Anna Bullard, 34, has been stalking the halls of the Capitol for seven years, since Ava was three, advocating for an autism insurance bill. Autism is a terrible diagnosis, she said, especially since most people equate it with profound mental retardation. And treatment that can help some kids costs between $20,000 and $50,000 a year, so most never get enough if any help.

Anna’s husband Noah, 38, is a teacher at Toombs County High School. They have two other children, Ellie, 12, and Lily, 9. They recognized early that Ava wasn’t “normal” and were “devastated” by the diagnosis - and then again when they found out her husband’s insurance didn’t cover treatment.

His State Health Benefit Plan now covers kids with autism through age 10. But Ava is already 10. Anna Bullard said her family and church members have helped them cover up to $30,000 of therapy a year for Ava, who has made what experts say is remarkable progress.

As a toddler, she couldn’t talk. At 16 months, she never pointed and barely walked. “It was like she didn’t hear anything at all,” Bullard said. “At 3, she couldn’t say ‘Mama.’”

“It took us six months to find a therapist who could come to our house in Lyons. She needed a therapist for up to 30 hours a week. And she’s had intensive therapy, learning how to make eye contact, interact with others, talk, play with other kids. Now she’s in the fifth grade and teachers say to me, ‘Are you sure Ava has autism?’ She is indistinguishable from kids her age.”

Ava’s progress has been extraordinary, said Catherine Rice, director of the Emory Autism Center.

“For most people it was unheard of in the past to think of intervention working so well,” Rice said.

One reason the Bullards pushed the Legislature so hard is that Ava’s great-uncle is Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, who has championed her cause and found other lawmakers just as enthusiastic, such as Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton.

He became “passionate” about the potential of people with autism after meeting Ava and sponsored SB 1.

“This disorder keeps families from truly knowing loved ones and steals away potential for productivity,” Bethel said. “Moreover, we are watching a public health crisis unfold every 69 births in this country. That is higher than the highest rate of polio infection ever recorded in the U.S. and greater than the incidence of childhood diabetes, childhood cancer and childhood HIV/AIS combined.”

When it looked like an autism insurance bill would fail again, he brokered a deal with Rep. Richard Smith, R-Columbus, who had said he opposed mandated coverage as “bad policy. Now he’s preparing a bill that would levy a sales tax increase of 0.2 percent on the statewide election ballot for November 2016 that would generate up to $300 million for autism treatments for children up to age 18.

The Bullards also plan to keep crusading for better coverage while they look forward to Ava’s graduation from Toombs High in 2022 - and not from a special education program.

“We expect her to go to college,” Anna said. “She wants to be a fashion designer. She also wants to be a senator so she can change laws quickly.”

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