Autism Coverage Bill Fails

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 2009

RICHMOND, Feb. 11 -- The Senate has effectively killed a bill that would have required insurers to cover autistic children, pleasing business lobbies that argued against new mandates but enraging parents who vowed revenge at the polls.

The fight over mandating autism coverage has gathered intensity nationwide and resonated especially strongly in Loudoun County and other fast-growing areas of Northern Virginia with high numbers of children.

Anger about the bill's defeat late Tuesday was magnified by what appeared to be a flip remark by a Northern Virginia lawmaker who had offered qualified backing for the cause. Moments after the vote on the bill concluded a late session, Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) took the floor.

"I'd inquire of the clerk: Who won?" Saslaw said with a grin. "We had a pool going."

The Senate clerk replied with a smile: "That's not appropriate, senator."

Advocates of the bill thought Saslaw's question referred to a wager on the bill's fate.

"Our parents just felt like their kids were made some sort of a joke, an office wager," said Judith Ursitti, regional director for Autism Speaks, a nonprofit organization.

But Saslaw, who had attempted to broker a compromise on the autism bill, said yesterday that his joke was a victim of bad timing. The office pool he referred to, Saslaw said, concerned the hour at which the Senate's session would end. Saslaw said it was tradition to wager on the timing of "crossover," the final session when each chamber concludes work on legislation that must be referred to its counterpart. Saslaw said he regretted the bill's failure.

"I did everything I could to get this thing out of here," he said.

More than 100 people, including educators, lawmakers, and families with autistic children, assembled in July at a community center in Lansdowne on the Potomac to organize their campaign. They enlisted not only other parents of autistic children but also their friends in what became known as the Loudoun Project. They traveled by the busload to the capital and trooped to lawmakers' offices wearing huge buttons saying, "Autism Votes in Virginia," often with their autistic children in tow.

"We promised a daily presence," said Pasquale "Pat" DiBari, a Leesburg resident and early organizer. "We really went above and beyond to tell legislators our personal stories."

Allying themselves with Autism Speaks, parents entered about 20,000 supporters into their database, and they flooded lawmakers' inboxes with more than 7,000 e-mails, winning bipartisan backing from Dels. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) and David E. Poisson (D-Loudoun). Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Winchester) carried a bill in the Senate.

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