- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 29, 2015

ATLANTA (AP) - Many parents who have struggled to get medical help for their autistic children will now qualify for insurance coverage under a new law signed Wednesday by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.

Deal signed a bill requiring insurers to cover up to $30,000 in therapy annually for autistic children age 6 and under.

Standing behind Deal when he signed the bill were Ava Bullard, 10, and her mother Anna, 34, who have led a long, often frustrating battle to require private insurance companies to offer autism coverage for children 6 and under.

The bill has been named “Ava’s Law” in her honor. Sens. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, and Renee Unterman, R-Buford, who have championed the cause and led the fight in the 2015 Legislature, were also on hand for the signing. An autism bill died late in the 2014 session and appeared to be about to meet the same fate until Bethel and state Rep. Richard Smith, R-Columbus, hashed out a deal in the waning days of the session.

Smith had said he opposed mandated coverage as “bad policy” but with Bethel crafted a compromise on a measure that would levy a sales tax increase of 0.2 percent on the statewide election ballot for November 2016 to generate up to $300 million for autism treatments for children up to age 18.

Deal said it was one of the most important pieces of legislation he’s signed as governor. It also provides protection for patients diagnosed with terminal illnesses by prohibiting insurance carriers from dropping coverage or declining treatment.

Deal said the combined “landmark” measure “will help provide for the health and needs of Georgia’s children” as well as people in the last stages of their lives.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, called to the podium by Deal because he is a long-time supporter of autism coverage, said “this obviously is a great day.”

He praised Ava and her mother for traveling the state, lobbying for autism coverage. Anna Bullard has been lobbying in the Capitol since Ava was 3 “and couldn’t even say ‘mama’.” Now, after intensive training that cost the family $30,000 to $40,000 a year, Bullard said Ava is “indistinguishable” from other children her age.

“It feels pretty good because I can help kids,” said Ava. Her mother said she’s been excited and disappointed before and was ecstatic when Deal signed the legislation.

“I really couldn’t feel peace until he signed it,” she said. “This is so exciting.”

Deal said one in 64 Georgia children are diagnosed with autism, and one in 39 little boys.

Last year he ordered Georia public health officials to include autism coverage in the State Health Insurance Plan.

“It is important to provide this treatment at an early age,” he said.

Bethel said “this is a tremendous step forward for families with very young autistic children, but there is still a great deal of work to be done in this area. We will need to continue working together - legislators, families, advocates and the business community - to ensure all individuals with autism receive the emotional and financial assistance needed to reach their full potential.”

Ava’s mother Anna summed it up: “It works. Intensive therapy works. Look at Ava. She’s normal. That’s the goal.”

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