- Associated Press - Thursday, May 4, 2017

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Parents and children pleaded with an Alabama legislative committee Thursday to require insurers to cover an intensive therapy that’s expensive but can be life-changing, they said, for children on the autism spectrum.

But business groups and the state’s dominant insurance company said the costs of the therapy would be passed down to insurance plan holders.

The emotional testimony dominated the public hearing before the Finance and Taxation Committee-General Fund on the bill to require coverage of what’s called applied behavioral analysis therapy.

Riley Ward, the 14-year-old daughter of state Sen. Cam Ward, described to the committee how she blossomed in speech and social skills after starting the therapy. Diagnosed at age 3, she went from being able to speak her first words to delivering a speech to legislators.

“Without them, I don’t know where I would be now. Kids with autism need this insurance,” Riley Ward said of her therapists.

ABA is an individualized and intense form of therapy. Children can require 20 or more hours of it a week. It can cost families thousands of dollars each month, putting it out of financial reach for many, if not most.

Karen Penn said she and her husband are fortunate to be able to pay for the therapy for their son who was also diagnosed at age 3. “He had no functional language. Now, he can speak,” Penn said.

Penn said it is “heartbreaking” to see mothers come into the clinic and see the progress other children are making through ABA therapy and learn that they can’t obtain it for their own children.

Robin Stone, a lobbyist for Blue Cross of Alabama, said the state’s largest insurer provides occupational and speech therapy for children, but not ABA therapy.

“Our main disagreement with the legislation is it removes a businessman’s or businesswoman’s ability to make that decision. Blue Cross has always opposed mandated benefits, and probably always will. We think that’s an employer’s decision,” Stone said.

Rosemary Elebash, who heads the Alabama chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, said small businesses are already struggling with insurance costs.

“Anytime you add a mandate to insurance coverage, it does add to the costs,” Elebash said.

David Bicard, the director of an ABA clinic in Montgomery and a member of the licensing board for therapists, said insurance companies in 45 states provide the coverage without shuttering businesses.

“At our clinic we do what was once thought impossible. We teach children to say Mama and Dada for the first time. We teach them how to make friends and be friends and ask for what they want instead of hitting,” Bicard said.

The House approved the bill last month by a unanimous vote. Sen. Trip Pittman, chairman of the Senate budget committee, said the committee will vote on the bill Wednesday.

The bill faces a rapidly closing legislative window to win approval. Lawmakers are hoping to conclude the session on May 18.

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This story has been corrected to say the meeting was Thursday, not Wednesday.

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