Home > Government Relations > Arkansas Sets Record Passing Bill in 29 Days From Start to Finish

Arkansas Sets Record Passing Bill in 29 Days From Start to Finish

This is a guest post by Dianna Varady, the Statewide Advocacy Chair for Autism Votes.

On March 4th, 2011, Governor Mike Beebe signed Arkansas HB 1315, “AN ACT TO PROVIDE INSURANCE COVERAGE FOR AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDERS” into law. Just like that our bill became Arkansas Act 196 of 2011.  A friend of mine from another state posted on my Facebook page, “Wow, you made that look easy!”  which sent me into a fit of hysterical laughter.

We began this journey in 2007, when my son was three years old with just a handful of moms and dads trying to do our best for our children.  It’s a no-brainer, right?  Who on Earth would believe that insurance should NOT cover treatment for children with autism?  As it turned out, a surprising number of people did but we were not surprised to learn that most of them worked for the Insurance industry – twenty-five lobbyists representing one private insurance company alone!  As soon as our bill showed signs of viability, the industry assigned every available lobbyist to defeat our bill – then hired a few more for good measure.

Fortunately in this case, parents of kids on the spectrum can be stubborn.  We marched down to the Capitol every year for four years. We quickly learned that our tiny group of parents couldn’t get the job done alone.

In 2009, Autism Speaks through their Autism Votes Program, offered to support our effort. With their assistance we built a solid grassroots base.  Soon families from all over Arkansas were organized under a structure of Advocacy Chairs in each region of the state who prepared and motivated our volunteers.

Late in 2010, we met with our legislative champions, Representative Uvalde Lindsey and Senator Maryanne Salmon, to develop the policy for the 2011 Session.  I’ll never forget the email Representative Lindsey on February 3rd when he filed HB 1315.  There was nothing in the body of the email, just four words in the subject line said, “Let the fight begin.”

Indeed, the fight was on.

For someone like me – unfamiliar with politics outside of this effort – it felt like an epic battle.  The opposition was mighty – their efficacy stunning.  Many legislators who initially appeared supportive of HB 1315 began to switch sides in a bizarre game of “keep away” where the insurance lobbyists tossed balls of confusion to every possible governmental entity.  They  advised legislators to seek funding for these treatments through Medicaid, Department of Human Services, or the Department of Education deflecting their responsibility to reimburse their policy holders for evidence-based treatments – and they were succeeding.

Keeping the conversation focused on the merits of our bill was like whack a mole.  Every time we got one thing under control another issue popped up.  So we rallied the grassroots troops we had worked so hard to grow and added a lobbyist to our team to keep constant vigil at the Capitol – alerting us to the first sign of trouble.

This 3-part team – grassroots, legislative champions, & lobbyists – finally put us over the top.  I firmly believe that each component was equally vital for our success.  Without one of them, we probably would have failed.    If we were losing ground at the Capitol or if a particular legislator was mounting an offensive against us, our lobbyist would sound the alarm then we would send an alert around the state to start burning-up the phones at the Capitol.  I have to confess that, while I’m proud of our success in passing the bill, I’m more proud of how this community united to make this a reality.

As it happened, it gave our legislators something to be proud of, too.  When HB 1315 went to the House floor, I was surprised by a legislator we had never even spoken to who rose to speak in favor of the bill.  He made an impassioned plea for his fellow House members to join him in voting YES. After the vote I went downstairs to introduce myself and to thank him.  This was a man who had no stake whatsoever in this fight. He knew no one with autism.  After I thanked him, his eyes misted up a bit and he said to me, “I only wish I had remembered to say what I went up there to say in the first place, which is that I believe this is the most important vote I’ll cast.”  I’ll cherish that memory forever.

So for those who have yet to pass a law, how does it feel to finally cross the finish line?  Relieved. Happy. Elated. Tearful. But most of all – PROUD.  Proud of Representative Lindsey and Senator Salmon who believed in us and fought so hard and long for our children.   Proud  of every legislator who supported us all the way through despite intense pressure from some very powerful and  influential people.  Proud of legislators who may have wavered at some point but did the right thing when it came time to cast their vote.

Most of all, I’m so proud of every single person in every corner of Arkansas who answered our calls to action flooding Capitol with phone calls, faxes, and emails.  It was proof positive that when the community comes together in a focused effort, amazing things can happen.  After four years of effort , with a unified, focused community, Act 196 took only a record 29 days from the day it was filed until the day it was signed into law.

  1. Jennifer Scudder
    March 23, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    How can we get something like this done in TEXAS?? One of the largest states and no such things happening HERE!!

  2. Shelley Hendrix
    March 23, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    Hi Jennifer,

    If you visit http://www.autismvotes.org and go to our State Based Initiatives page you can see all the states that have passed legislation. Texas has passed similar legislation in 2007 which was expanded in 2009 but coverage varies from the legislation passed in Arkansas. These laws apply to state regulated insurance plans. If your health insurance plan is federally regulated, you will still have to wait until this is accomplished at a Federal level.

    Join our Autism Votes page on Facebook and be sure to sign up at http://www.autismvotes.org to help!

  3. Adriana
    March 23, 2011 at 5:44 pm

    Texas does in fact need this to happen here! You either have to super rich or completely poor to get any kind of assistance! The majority of us are middle class and struggle to get the REQUIRED therapy needed for our children! It’s tough enough to have a child with autism let alone struggle to deal with all the insurance forms and denials that come back for something so basic as speech therapy! HELP!

  1. March 27, 2011 at 3:12 am

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