Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Combating Autism Bill Scheduled for House Vote

The House is expected to pass the Combating Autism Act on Wednesday, Dec. 6, after the Texas congressman who had blocked the bill reached a compromise. That's according to a brief statement by an umbrella group for 20 autism advocacy and support groups called CombatAutism.org. After that happens, the Senate would need to vote on the bill on Thursday. Then the bill would go to President Bush.

The House version, while not as strongly favored by autism advocates as the version the Senate passed in August, still would allocate about $945 million for research and support services on autism spectrum disorders. This story posted tonight by the McClatchy Newspaper chain explains that Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who's the outgoing chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and had opposed the autism bill because he favored a plan to overhaul the nation's medical research institutes, worked out a compromise:
Barton was resistant to moving a "disease-specific" bill while he was working on legislation that affects the National Institutes of Health. The NIH bill passed the House in September, but Barton still had problems with the [Senate version of the] autism bill's focus on the NIH and the stipulation that researchers study environmental factors that autism activists maintain trigger the disease.

The compromise allocates funding to NIH but directs the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to set up regional centers of excellence for epidemiological research. The bill includes environmental factors in the list of research areas to be studies, but drops the Senate-passed version's provision for $45 million in research on environmental factors.

Not everyone in the autism community will greet this news warmly. Those who were pushing to get an explicit autism-environmental research project in the bill will be disappointed if not outraged. However, even with that language missing, this is a big step forward for Americans with autism and their families. And if the president signs the bill, it will put autism spectrum disorders on the nation's agenda as a problem that needs addressing.

But even if the president signs the bill, there's still one more hurdle: the federal budget appropriations process. National Public Radio today on Morning Edition broadcast an interesting report that puts the political battle over the Combating Autism Act into a bigger context: who gets to decide how the nation spends its medical research dollars. (Click here to see a web page where you can read and listen to the report.) There's some heart-felt advocacy from Elizabeth Emken, a Cure Autism Now advocate from Danville, Calif., who asserts the government has neglected autism research up until now. But there's also this warning from Dave Moore, executive director of the Ad Hoc Group for Medical Research, which lobbies for medical research funding:

"We still have a very large deficit," Moore tells NPR. "We still have a very large war that we're trying to conduct. We still have a number of other priorities, such as homeland security, that have to be funded. So the support for medical research is going to have to be viewed in the context of these larger budget decisions."

You can see past Autism Bulletin coverage of the Combating Autism Act here.

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