Tuesday, August 01, 2006

"Combating Autism Act of 2005" Moves Ahead, Slowly

The Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee on July 19 passed the Senate version of the Combating Autism Act of 2005, a major bill which would set aside close to $900 million over the next five years to respond to the growing population of Americans with autism spectrum disorders. The act would:
  • establish the National Institutes of Health director as the nation's "autism czar," accountable for coordinating research and developing an annual budget to present to Congress;
  • expand federal research studies, including investigations into potential causes of autism, including environmental causes;
  • provide for early autism screening for children across the country;
  • fund efforts to identify the best medical treatments;
  • continue public education programs.
Aside from the link to the bill itself, there's a wealth of information at advocacy organizations like Cure Autism Now, which set up a special website for citizens to rally for Congress to pass the bill. The site lists 18 national autism advocacy groups that have been working since November for its passage. Among the other groups sounding approval are Autism Speaks (here is the group's statement) and the Autism Society of America.

While the autism community is buzzing about the bill, there's a way to go yet. The Combating Autism Act must win passage in the full Senate and also in the House, which is where advocates are seeking more co-sponsors. As of today, the Senate bill has 42 co-sponsors, shy of a 51-vote majority; the House version has 142 co-sponsors. You can see a list of all the co-sponsors here. And of course, the House and Senate would have to hash out any differences in their respective bills, and then President Bush would have to sign it into law, all before the next Congress gets installed in January. (Has anyone seen or heard President Bush say anything about autism? The only recent reference I found to the president discussing autism is when he congratulates Jason "J-Mac" McElwain, a New York teen with autism, for a great high school basketball performance last March.)

There's one other rub in this political battle. As Bloggg, who writes often about autism, has pointed out, a number of advocacy groups withdrew their support for the Combating Autism Act after the Senate committee voted to approve it. The group Advocates for Children's Health Affected By Mercury Poisoning, also known as A-Champ, says it has withdrawn its support for the Senate bill because it doesn't address the group's specific concerns about researching whether vaccines containing mercury preservatives cause autism.

Hopefully A-Champ and others will find reason to rejoin the bandwagon. The legislation watchers at Autism Speaks sounded like they were trying to assuage the concerns about vaccines when they wrote about the bill's language setting up Centers of Excellence in Environmental Health. The Autism Speaks people then explain what they expect to happen when the Combating Autism Act reaches the Senate floor: "It is expected that language in the [Senate] committee report accompanying the bill, and statements made in the Congressional Record when the bill is considered on the Senate Floor, will convey congressional intent that vaccines and their preservatives should be considered such 'environmental factors.' "

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