Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat, and Senator Wayne Allard, a Colorado Republican, announced they are co-sponsoring a bill to expand access to services for Americans with autism spectrum disorders. The senators made the announcement on March 20 at a press conference in Washington with leaders of advocacy groups such as Autism Speaks and the Autism Society of America. You can read a press release on the announcement here via Clinton's website. You can also scroll to the end of this article to see a YouTube video clip of the senators' announcement.
The "Expanding the Promise for Individuals with Autism Act" takes a seven-pronged approach to expand access to treatment and support. It would:
* Boost funding for autism-related services at the state level by awarding grants to states "to help them provide evidence-based treatments, interventions and services."
* Target programs for adults with autism. The bill would set up a grant program specifically targeting programs in states that serve adults with autism. "These grants will go to states to provide appropriate interventions and services, such as housing or vocational training, to adults with autism."
* Increase the supply of post-diagnosis services. Because many children and families have to wait months for treatment after getting an autism diagnosis, this bill "will mandate that the Secretary of Health and Human Services develop guidelines to increase the amount and quality of post-diagnosis treatments and services" through federal and state-funded programs.
* Address a shortage of service providers. The bill would increase the capacity of "University Centers for Excellence in Development Disabilities Education, Research and Service to train professionals in meeting the treatment, interventions and service needs of both children and adults living with autism."
* Examine financing for autism services. Under the bill, the Government Accountability Office would "study financing of autism treatment and services, including current public and private insurance coverage for autism treatment and support services, and identify geographic and regional disparities in access to care." The GAO also would make recommendations for financing treatment and care services "to remove both cost and geographic barriers and attain a uniform baseline of coverage across the United States."
* Increase access to advocacy services. The bill would create a program to expand existing advocacy services to help people with autism and other disabilities get the advocacy help they need.
* Establish a center for technical expertise on autism services. The bill would call for the Secretary of Health and Human Services to set up "a National Technical Assistance Center for Autism Treatments, Interventions and Services to serve as a resource for parents and service providers." The center would provide experience in training, research translation and service provisions.
A first-reaction analysis of the Clinton-Allard proposal
Analysis: Though it's tempting to view every action of a presidential hopeful like Senator Clinton through a campaign-season lens and see it as a political ploy, this proposal -- and its inclusion of a Republican senator as a co-sponsor -- is impressive in its reach and timing. It covers a number of areas that families affected by autism have been clamoring for: increased access to services, an effort to raise the quality of existing services, care for adults with autism spectrum disorders. And, notably, it brings to the fore a national examination of how to pay for autism services. This is a question a number of states have looked at addressing, narrowly, by prohibiting health insurers from discriminating against people with autism, for example, or by setting up state task forces to study the issue.
The timing is also interesting. It was only December when President Bush signed the Combating Autism Act (see background here). That law calls for spending more than $900 million over the next five years on autism research and awareness education programs. The Clinton-Allard proposal complements the Combating Autism Act and potentially brings more services to more people -- while continuing to build momentum in Washington for action to help a growing population of disabled Americans.
Neither Clinton nor Allard mention a price tag for their bill, but two others do: it's an estimated $350 million, according to the Autism Society of America, which put out a call to alert your senator to support the proposal (see that here). Also citing that figure is Suzanne Wright who along with her husband Robert Wright founded Autism Speaks. She mentioned the bill and the figure in passing during her appearance March 21 on Larry King Live on CNN. King did a show on autism awareness with Bill Cosby and Toni Braxton, among others. Read a transcript of the program here.
And here's the video clip of Clinton and Allard's announcement, from YouTube: