It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what is required. – Sir Winston
I cannot express the level of pride I have in my home state. Georgia is the home of courageous
men and women who made or continue to make a positive impact on our state and the nation.
This year, Georgians stepped up and addressed the most important, yet previously almost
unknown, issue that affects all of us; autism.
While thousands of people and organizations have made significant contributions to illuminating
the issues surrounding autism that have been shrouded in darkness for so many decades,
Kimberly Dick has made a special impact in Georgia. Kimberly is the executive director of field
development in Georgia and Tennessee for Autism Speaks (AS). She has worked tirelessly over
the years to make Georgia aware of autism’s impact on our people. With her pleasant
disposition and sincere message, she has developed working relationships with Gov. Deal, Lt.
Gov. Cagle, and many members of the General Assembly. One of those members, who strongly
supports autism legislation, is from the west Georgia area; Sen. Mike Dugan.
Kimberly, along with AS, has also been supportive and instrumental in the continuing success of
the West Georgia Autism Foundation.
Kimberly and others have played a huge part in making 2018 the year when Georgia accepted
the challenge of doing what is required to address autism.
While I do not speak on behalf of AS, looking at their historical summary and report for 2018
provides important perspective on where we were and where we are today. Georgia’s first
significant attack on the ignorance, lack of awareness, and financial issues associated with
autism took place with the passage of Ava’s Law. Ava’s Law was originally passed in Georgia in
2015 after almost a decade of providing critical information to our state government. The law
intended to reverse the damaging circumstances that individuals diagnosed with autism
experienced when health insurance plans excluded any treatment specific to autism from their
coverage. Families in Georgia have struggled for years to access basic care for their autistic
children. Without the appropriate funding stream, the number of providers remained extremely
low and long waiting lists developed across the state.
Ava’s Law was a huge step in the right direction. But, the initial passage was not without
compromise. Although evidence indicates that therapy is effective across the lifespan of
individuals with autism, the General Assembly amended the original bill to cap coverage of
behavioral therapy at $30,000 annually and only apply the requirement to children ages 6 and
under. Ava’s Law affects private health plans regulated by the State of Georgia and requires
screening and diagnosis; speech, occupational and physical therapy; applied behavior analysis
and psychiatric and psychological care for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Informed citizens were grateful for the progress, but also determined to continue to work towards
coverage for individuals with autism of all ages. Another critical step forward occurred in the
2018 legislative session when Senator Renee Unterman introduced Senate Bill 118. The bill
modestly increased the previous dollar cap on behavioral therapy to $35,000 annually. But, the
major provision increased the age cap on behavioral therapy from 6 years old to 20.
Interestingly, House Insurance Committee Chairman Richard Smith, a longtime opponent of the
bill, actually became its champion in the 2018 legislative session after he reviewed claims data
reported from Georgia’s own State Employee Health Plan. Sen. Smith, like hundreds of
thousands of Georgians today, has become aware of the significant current and future problems
associated with ignoring autism.
Gov. Deal recently signed SB 118. The new law will go into effect on January 1, 2019.
Autism has touched my life in a significant way. It is fair to question my emotions and bias. So,
let’s take an objective look at why is the expansion of Ava’s Law is such a large step for
Georgia; particularly for families who do not know anyone with autism?
In general, the longer a child receives treatment for autism, the better he or she will function as
an adult. 1 in 52 boys are born with autism. Those boys become men. With treatment, some
will still need the financial assistance of family, foundations, and/or government. However,
many will become independent, have jobs, become taxpayers, and be able to manage the
challenges associated with autism.
Additionally, while our state will save money by having less people in need of assistance,
employment will be boosted, and tax revenues will rise, statewide efforts to eradicate ignorance
and further increase awareness will continue to rapidly grow.
Georgians know that just trying to solve problems is not good enough. We also know that
sometimes we must put our collective force behind a goal and ensure that we succeed in doing
what is required.