As a new parent, you quickly start to view a lot of everyday things in a different way. Every time my son gets a cold, or heads off to daycare (my wife and I call it “school” to assuage our consciences) I feel a little pang of worry – it’s natural to want to protect your kids and take care of them. So far, we’ve been lucky, and my son is a healthy, happy and vibrant young boy. But not everyone is that lucky. One of my closest friends from college has an autistic child and he and his wife work very hard and make sacrifices I can’t even imagine in order to care for their kids. Autism is a disorder that is frequently misunderstood and is rarely covered by health insurance, leaving parents with the stark choice of going broke paying for special schools and programs designed to help autistic kids or taking the chance with public systems that are simply ill equipped to deal with those special needs students. The parents of children with autism have been working these issues hard with the General Assembly, and their hard work paid off this session with a bill introduced in both the House and Senate that would require health insurance companies to cover autism.
Loudoun Delegate Tag Greason and Fairfax Delegate Tim Hugo patroned HB 2467, which has garnered the support of a number of senior members in the House of Delegates, including Speaker Bill Howell. And while this bill has bipartisan support, it has also drawn the fire of Americans for Prosperity, one of the leading conservative economic public policy organizations. I am good friends with their national Executive Vice President and General Counsel. Normally, I agree with their positions, but on this bill, they’ve got it wrong.
Ben Marchi, the Virginia State Director of AFP, has sent out at least one blast email criticizing the bill, and a recorded robo-call of his has gone out to AFP’s 80,000 members in Virginia, according to the Washington Post. The bill, in their eyes, is yet another government expansion and bad for small businesses and taxpayers. I don’t buy it and neither should you.
Marchi’s criticism is shallow and cynically political. He tries to tie the autism bill with Obamacare, arguing that the bill is “telling private companies what services they must offer. Sound familiar? Remember our fight against Obamacare?” Yes, I do remember the fight against Obamacare, and the issue there was completely different than the issue here. We fought against the federal government requiring individuals to buy health insurance – an act that two courts have found unconstitutional. Those courts found the mandate unconstitutional because Congress doesn’t have the authority to mandate individuals buy health insurance.
This bill isn’t a mandate on individuals. It is a mandate on insurance providers – companies whose existence is only made possible by the Commonwealth. There is nothing in the Virginia Constitution that forbids the General Assembly from mandating coverage for insurance provides who seek to do business in the state. The Commonwealth’s General Assembly can do a lot of things that the Federal Congress cannot do – and requiring coverage types is one of those things. The Commonwealth, under VA Code § 38.2-3519, already requires minimum levels that insurance carriers must provide if they want to do business in the Commonwealth. The health insurance business is already one of the most heavily regulated of any industry – and it should be – in the state. I don’t know how adding autism to the list of covered illnesses is somehow so beyond the pale that AFP would try to equate this bill with Obamacare. They’re not even in the same ballpark. So when Marichi says “[t]here is little difference in Speaker Howell authoring a bill that gives state government the authority to dictate to private companies what services they must offer and the monstrosity of ObamaCare,” he is – at best – not being intellectually honest. There’s a huge difference, and AFP can’t be so obtuse as to not recognize it.
Marchi adds a throwaway line that I found personally distasteful – “Autism is a very personal and emotional thing for families to deal with – but not every tragic situation deserves a new government mandate.” Okay, Ben – which tragic situation does deserve a new government mandate? All these parents want is for their child’s illness to be treated like any other illness. A child with autism is no less tragic than a child with diabetes, or a child with cerebral palsy, both of which are diseases that are generally covered by health insurance. Why should autistic kids be treated any differently than other special needs kids? There’s no good reason, and trying to turn this argument into some kind of nanny-state bash is ignorant.
Marichi goes on to say “Unfortunately, some politicians in Richmond have tried to highjack this issue for political gain, while at the same time placing unfair mandates on small businesses and taxpayers.” This isn’t fair, and Ben should know it. The families of autistic kids have been fighting long and hard to get Richmond to pay any attention to their problems – grassroots lobbying and the amount of hard work that groups like the Virginia Autism Project – and they’ve finally been successful. I don’t consider that to be a “highjack for political gain” – I consider that to be a victory for the democratic process, where regular people were able to persuade their legislator to support a bill that they want to see enacted.
AFP complains about some of the specific provisions of the bill, which they argue run afoul of federal mental health care parity laws. If that’s the case, then I strongly urge the Speaker and the General Assembly to lift those caps and treat autism like any other illness in kids. If the caps are the problem, lift the caps. That would make this a better bill and if you’re going to have your erstwhile friends attack you for doing the right thing, might as well go all out.
If there’s a better way to convince these insurance companies to cover autism like any other disease, I’m all ears. If AFP has a better plan, let’s hear it.
As I said, Americans for Prosperity has done a lot of good work over the last two election cycles, and their efforts to stop Obamacare deserve a lot of credit. But they’re just plain wrong here, and I hope that their membership takes a good hard look at this legislation before making a knee-jerk decision to oppose it. There are too many families in Virginia impacted by autism and unable to get the care they need for their kids – this is one of those situations where government needs to step in. There’s nothing unconstitutional about it.
Ben Marchi himself just became a new father – it’s unfortunate that he and those on the staff of the Virginia AFP can’t find the empathy to recognize that this issue goes beyond politics and has a real effect on Virginia families. There is no reason why autism should be treated differently than any other medical or mental illness. That’s all these parents want. And I think it’s not too much to ask. Delegates Greason and Hugo and Speaker Howell deserve praise, not criticism, for leading the charge on this issue.