Autism legislation advances in Virginia

Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 5:27 PM

RICHMOND - In the beginning, several Northern Virginia families whose children have autism thought that their wrenching stories would be enough to get some help from their representatives in the General Assembly.

At town halls and rallies, through blogs and e-mails, the families conveyed the difficulty of coping with a mysterious ailment and the staggering cost of its treatment, as they pleaded with lawmakers to impose mandates for insurance coverage.

But when that didn't work, the families took a new tack. They focused on the facts. They drilled lawmakers with detailed cost-benefit analyses to the state. They sometimes made explicit their threat of political action at the polls, while all along quietly working on House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), whose eventual support angered some members of his party.

Above all, the families lowered their expectations.

Now, after following the classic playbook of grass-roots activism for 11 years, these families have come within striking distance of victory, as Virginia appears poised to join at least 23 states that mandate insurance coverage for autism.

On Wednesday, the Republican-led House gave final approval to a bill that would require insurers to provide limited coverage for autistic children. The Senate, whose Democratic majority has backed more expansive versions of the bill in previous years, will probably debate the measure Monday.

"We got smarter at trying to convey our issue," said Teresa Champion, 52, a lawyer from Springfield who has an autistic child. "It wasn't the crying mom, saying, 'I need help' - and, you know, they're like backing away."

The House bill, sponsored by Del. Thomas A. "Tag" Greason (R-Loudoun), passed 74 to 24, with 20 Republicans opposed. Despite benefits that had been sharply limited compared with proposals in years past, autism advocates were thrilled.

"This bill is a huge step in the right direction for the state of Virginia," said Pat DiBari, president of the Virginia Autism Project, a nonprofit that grew out of a Loudoun County summit on autism in August 2008.

Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), who sponsored the Senate's bill, chalked up this year's progress to "effective advocacy" that enlisted the House speaker as an ally.

"And the fact that it's an election year - it's hard to be against children and autism and their families," the senator said.

The speaker's support - which all but ensures that the bill will pass the General Assembly this year - has riled some conservatives. They question the wisdom of a new mandate while opposing the federal health-care overhaul passed last year.

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