Autism bill supporters have mixed feelings about the Senate’s version

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - After weeks of delays and negotiations, the Alabama State Senate passed the autism insurance mandate bill, by a vote of 33-1.

While it's a major step forward for parents of children with autism, last-minute amendments will prevent several groups from receiving insurance benefits for a year and a half.

The senate added on several last-minute amendments Tuesday afternoon. The most significant include the mandate now only applies to companies that insure at least 50 employees and it delays coverage to those with PEEHIP, Medicaid and All Kids Insurance.

The Sparks family should have been celebrating this evening at Big Spring Park.

“It’s very frustrating," said Ashley Sparks, the parent of a child with autism.

In one sense, Ashley is relieved progress has been made to expand autism therapy, covered by medical insurance.

“Celebrate a step forward," said Sparks.

But their family will have to wait until 2018, before those coverage benefits kick in.

Her husband, Drew, is a teacher and is insured under PEEHIP, the Public Education Employee's Health Insurance Plan.

“It’s very frustrating to see it watered down, it's frustrating to see caps put on things, it’s frustrating to see a perfectly good bill picked a part for the sake of big business," said Sparks.

Their sweet six-year-old, Brinley, has autism.

There are good days, but then there are days that can be a real challenge.

“Things that for a normal child might be a simple frustration and they can say, I’m upset about this or they kind of get upset and they can work through it, Brinley can’t get there," she explained.

A potential game changer for Brinley, and thousands with autism, is a type of therapy called Applied Behavioral Analysis, or ABA.

“One of the benefits of behavior therapy is it does teach them coping skills because it’s a completely different scenario from teaching a normal child how to cope," said Sparks.

The therapy works through scenarios that prepare children with autism for real-life settings, but comes with a price tag - and it's a big one.

“We calculated it up, the very bare minimum for Brinley would be $1400 a month, and speech and OT are also out-of-pocket for us, that’s another $675 a month just for twice a week speech and once a week occupational therapy," she said.

On a teacher's salary, they just can't make that happen.

“[Brinley] would have an opportunity to have more meaningful relationships, to have greater gains in school to be able to go to a restaurant and sit through an entire meal maybe without having a complete meltdown and covering her ears," said Sparks.

So while one battle has been one, Ashley vows to keep fighting until they can win the war.

"Until everyone has access to this coverage, it’s never going to be acceptable," she said.  "I’m not going to stop fighting for what every Alabama kid deserves."

Another major amendment, is there are now caps on the amount each child can receive based on their age. Because the Sparks are covered under PEEHIP, Brinley will only qualify for one year of the highest level of coverage.

It's important to note, this version of the autism mandate bill is not a completely done deal.

The changes the Senate made, now have to be approved by the House, and signed by Gov. Kay Ivey before the bill becomes law.