Friday, March 13, 2009

Hello again, everyone! Regular readers of my column know I am fighting to help children with autism.

The effort has taken the form of “Nick’s Law,” which would require health insurance in Oklahoma to cover autism spectrum disorders. Last year, we enjoyed bipartisan support in the Senate on this issue.

Not everyone supported it, and I understand that, but senators from both parties joined hands to pass “Nick’s Law” in the Senate numerous times. In the House of Representatives, it quickly became partisan, with the majority Republicans denying the bill even a hearing.

This year, House Republicans shot down “Nick’s Law” very quickly – in hopes of washing their hands of a sticky political issue early in the session. Now, it appears Senate Republicans have decided to be as partisan as their House brethren as two separate votes – right down party lines – suggest they fear even discussing the issue.

The first vote was on a bill about the Oklahoma High Risk Insurance Pool. The pool is the “insurer of last resort,” a creation of the Legislature to provide coverage for those Oklahomans who cannot get health insurance elsewhere. It seems a perfect way to provide autism coverage.

I proposed requiring the pool to cover autism consistent with “Nick’s Law.” The one change I made was to lower the annual cap to $36,000, the same as the Republican-sponsored Louisiana law that requires health insurers in that state to cover autism.

Instead of allowing the amendment to be considered, the author of the bill moved to “advance” the bill beyond the ability to amend. The motion to advance was approved on a staight party-line vote with Republicans voting “yes” and Democrats voting “no.”

The second vote – again, down party lines – was on a bill to create a Health Insurance Mandate Review Task Force. This task force would be horribly tilted in favor of big insurance and against consumers.

Republican legislative leaders would have eight of 10 appointments to the task force. The governor would have two appointments; the state Insurance Commissioner would be the 11th member.

I proposed an amendment to give the governor two more appointments and require they come from the consumer side of the equation. Legislative leaders and big insurance still would have enjoyed a two-to-one advantage on the task force under my amendment.

That wasn’t good enough; the author of that bill moved to advance the measure beyond amendment, which was approved on a partisan vote. Given the composition of the task force, the results it would propose are a foregone conclusion.

There will be other chances to vote on variations of “Nick’s Law” as I refuse to give up on Oklahoma’s children with autism. The question is: Will Republican members – many of whom have voted for “Nick’s Law” in the past – have the courage to vote their conscience or will they cower under pressure from their leadership?

Thanks again for reading this week’s “Senate Minute.” Have a great week, and may God bless you all.

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