PROVIDENCE – Twelve years ago, Joanne Quinn sat in a parking lot, arguing over the telephone with her insurance company, which had just told her that her then-4-year-old son, Patrick, diagnosed a week earlier with autism, was eligible to be covered for just six weeks of speech and language training.
Quinn, of the RI Autism Project, choked up at a lectern in the RI House of Representatives Lounge Wednesday as she and others celebrated passage of a bill that requires autism spectrum disorders to be covered by health insurance and other medical plans.
“This is huge, I am overwhelmed today,” Quinn said at a press conference to urge Gov. Lincoln Chafee to sign the bill, a version of which has passed in both the House and Senate. Now the Senate bill, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Edward O'Neill, must pass in the House, and the House bill, By Rep. Peter Palumbo, must pass in the Senate before they both go to Chafee for his signature or veto.
Both O'Neill and Palumbo have children with autism, but this bill will not affect them because it is targeted at youngsters 15 and younger. It takes effect on January 1, 2012.
“It is my hope that no other parent ever has that comment said to them, that their child who does not speak has six weeks,” Quinn said. “Our kids can make progress, our kids can go to regular schools, they can become taxpaying citizens.”
After the press conference, Quinn, who lives in East Greenwich, “We were lucky. We had a good school system and we could afford to pay for it privately. We didn't have time to fight as much as we had time to fight his biological clock and get him what he needed. And he is doing better. He is graduating high school is two years.”
Quinn said she is fighting now for parents who were in the same position she was in. “It's too expensive. You can't afford it, no matter what you make. You might start out middle class, but a lot of families...somebody has to quit (their job), I've seen friends' divorces, losing everything. Now this will open it up a little bit for everybody.
“There were some pretty tall hurdles in getting this bill passed,” O'Neill said. “What it does is it allows insurance overage so we can get an early diagnosis. Getting that early diagnosis, understanding what it is and getting early treatment and getting them mainstreamed” into the regular education system. “I in my heart of hearts believe that by getting these children diagnosed and treated, we are going to get them into the public school system faster, they're going to have better opportunities to learn, they are going to become more productive members of society and it is going to cost us less as taxpayers because they are going to be taking advantage of the public school system.
“This legislation really says there is help on the way,” O'Neill said.
O'Neill said the bill was a result of “civil but somewhat stressful discourse,” with insurance companies opposing the imposition of the mandate. “They knew the bill was coming” O'Neill said of the insurers. so they tried to minimize the impact. “There was negotiation,” he said, “there was a lot of back and forth. We wanted them to show a level of acceptance because it did seem to them that because of the support we had that this was coming.
June Groden of the Groden Network says the legislation “will finally give treatment to those who need it at a young age.” She called it “landmark legislation for autism.”