Medical Marijuana: Renee Unterman is totally to blame.

March 31, 2014 8:40 am

by Stefan · 25 comments

Or is she?

Renee Unterman is a familiar figure at the gold dome, especially to those working in the health care realm. She’s long presided over the health committee.

And she wants children with autism to be covered.

Senator Unterman cares about autism treatment. Her own son had autism, never got the treatment he needed, and tragically took his own life. The quest for autism treatment is a personal one for her.

Though many said it didn’t  go far enough, the senate bill she championed last session was a huge expansion in insurance coverage for kids with autism. Through her efforts, it passed the Senate unanimously and went to the house.

That’s when a personal crusade to help kids with autism collided with hubris. In the end, the kids lost out.

The house apparently saw the bill as little more than Obamacare light. They saw the bill, didn’t like it and shunted it off to committee. There senate bill 397, a weakened version of Ava’s law seemed destined to die on the vine.

At the same time, the medical marijuana bill appeared in the senate. To the lay person, the house bill seemed similar. One focused on autism and the other on medical bud but both aiming to help children.  Senator Unterman saw an opportunity. She could use her chair position to force the house to move on autism. Here’s what she told WSB:

“Well, always when we get to the last 10 days of the session there’s a lot of bills held hostage. I have worked on the autism bill and it has not had a hearing in the house,” Unterman said.

Just as her bill was ‘held hostage’ so too now was the medical marijuana bill. But Unterman’s move failed to get the house to act on her measure. So senator Unterman upped the ante. She attached her autism language to the marijuana proposal, HB885. Together, they passed overwhelmingly in the senate and went back to the house.

A move that would doom both measures.

From the earlier treatment of her autism bill in the house, Senator Unterman knew the language was bound to cause problems.  For example, Allen Peake, the sponsor of HB 885, had spoke out against the autism language.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly on sine die, the senate refused to take pass medical marijuana without autism. The house wouldn’t take up any bill that had autism in it. And in that impasse, both plans died.

Two op-eds, one by Allen Peake, and one by a mother of a child who badly needed the oil that 885 would have legalized, place the blame directly on Senator Unterman and Casey Cagle.

But are they really blameworthy? Senator Unterman’s twitter feed is full of her advocacy for autistic kids and their parents. It is an issue she has made her cause. Should she have given up? Gold dome pundits know how commonplace fights are between the two chambers and legislative games of chicken are certainly also routine.

The parents of kids who need medical marijuana wish she would have blinked. Unterman said those families just don’t understand “this building is nothing but politics.” Harsh words but perhaps this session she felt that personal sting right along with them.

randomdude March 31, 2014 at 9:05 am

While her intentions were noble, she said herself why she’ll receive a large part to blame here. “This building is nothing but politics.” HB885 was going to pass, and Unterman knew that her bill was not. Do I think that’s fair? No. Despite flaws in both Ava’s Law and Haleigh’s Hope Act, both bills were aimed to improve health care for children. But as she said, it was politics, and she tied her bill to HB885 knowing that it would likely kill it. She put the needs of the children who would be helped by her bill above the needs of children who would be helped by HB885 in a game of chicken where no one won. She can say that it was politics in the other chamber that killed her bill, but ultimately it was her playing politics that killed HB885.

Left Turn Only March 31, 2014 at 9:07 am

The sate constitution forbids any bill having two distinct subject matters. Mandated insurance coverage (autism) and medical marijuana (criminal) are wholly separate subjects. The combined bill, of course, would be unconstitutional. All parties were aware of that fact.

Raleigh March 31, 2014 at 9:21 am

“Unterman said those families just don’t understand “this building is nothing but politics.”

No truer words can describe Georgia government, she is 100% right. It has nothing to do with need or fairness.

Those children and for that matter all of us are no more that political pawns to those under the Gold Dome for political pet projects from tire disposal taxes to Go Fish museums. I don’t see it changing until there is a political need to do so. One of those needs is self preservation which is all we pawns have to do battle. We need to use it.

objective March 31, 2014 at 9:25 am

i don’t see how you can’t also blame anyone and everyone who helped create a culture that was anti-insurance reform. first, it’s one thing to say obamacare is not the right policy. but it’s another to say that and not attack the problem. unterman was arguable just trying to reform just one tiny piece, and in a manner that GA has done many times before, i.e. insurance coverage mandates have been existied and modified since the inception of insurance. so blame those who couldn’t stomach one piece of the food they themselves posioned. the same food they make GA’s children eat.

John Konop March 31, 2014 at 9:51 am

At issue is the lack of adult conversation around healthcare…….First, the faster and earlier the kids get treatment the better chance of success, and in general cost us less in the long run….. like must healthcare issues…Second, screaming free market for healthcare…seems ok in theory, but than reality hits….insurance company is about profits…..ie free market….the patient and parents is about staying alive and or treatment…..ie conflict of interest….which why you need a referee to make rules….insurance company goal take as much money and cover the least amount…..finally, the above debate should not be club to stop medical marijuana…..

ryanhawk March 31, 2014 at 9:52 am

You seem to know Senator Unterman well. Perhaps you can clear something up for me. You say that Unterman is just doing what she does “for the children” and perhaps this is true. But it seems that she has a conflict of interest that suggests another motive. And the fact that she doesn’t really disclose the conflict leads me to believe her motives might have more to do with financial concerns.

While Renee Unterman chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee she does NOT disclose her employment by AmeriGroup — a company that profits from Government healthcare programs — on her Senate Biography or campaign website. She does disclose her employment on the required “Financial Disclosure” but does not disclose either how much she is paid or what she does for AmeriGroup.

So my questions: How much is Senator Unterman paid by AmeriGroup? What does she do for them? And why doesn’t she disclose her employment on her campaign or Senate websites?

ryanhawk March 31, 2014 at 10:19 am

And if I may ask additional questions: Would AmeriGroup have profited from the passage of the autism mandate (SB 397)? If so, how much?

How long until these questions are answered by the Senator?

Stefan March 31, 2014 at 11:14 am

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I think they are fair, perhaps she will come on to answer them here?

ryanhawk March 31, 2014 at 3:25 pm

Thanks Stefan. I obviously think they are fair questions too. Hard, but fair. So now there are two people asking….

LorieW March 31, 2014 at 9:58 pm

Amerigroup would not have profited since ABA is not covered by Medicaid in GA. It is still considered educational related. CHOA would have profited and all purchasing ACA GA benchmark plans would be out of luck since the bill changed the definition of autism and would not be covered at all.

ryanhawk April 1, 2014 at 9:25 am

Thanks for the info Lorie. ABA is covered by Medicaid in other states and my belief is that this is a step in that direction in Georgia. Unterman has a real conflict of interest on this issue (and many others) and it’s long past time for an investigation — by a journalist or a prosecutor.

http://www.autismspeaks.org/advocacy/advocacy-news/federal-judge-florida-medicaid-cover-aba-now

LorieW April 1, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Many years ago, parents fought to get Medicaid coverage for their special needs children following Fed Guidelines. Thanks to Unterman, they implemented the Champions for Exceptional Children which did far less than what was needed. A little pat on her back while she threw kids under the bus. Children who qualify for Medicaid are still being unfairly denied.

objective March 31, 2014 at 10:09 am

it also perutrbs me that this is yet another example of how a policymaker views a policy as bad until it effects them or a loved one personally. then it’s all good.
now, Rep. Peake may not have had a family member with a child suffering seizures, but he gained his empathy from talking with constuituents, it appears. why couldn’t any representative gain empathy for autistic children and their families after discussions with them or Sen. Unterman? if they could develop empathy before policy, why were there no alternative policies proposed?

Chris Huttman March 31, 2014 at 4:45 pm

Simple answer for you: Rich people can already pay for autism coverage out of pocket, but it is illegal to buy pot for your sick kid. Therefor, change the pot law. Poor/middle class need to pull themselves up by the bootstraps instead of looking for a handout (ie changing the autism law).

How’s that work for a simple difference?

LorieW March 31, 2014 at 9:54 pm

Parents of special needs children have dealt with Senator Unterman in the past prior to her son’s passing. We knew her son was special needs but she still wouldn’t budge to help since it was cost prohibitive to her employer. I know parents 10 years later who still despise her.

LorieW March 31, 2014 at 9:44 pm

GA has an existing autism mandate which while it wasn’t perfect, it was better than SB 397. Rather than building on the existing mandate, it was gutted by Autism Speaks and ABA company to guarantee payments for a behavioral treatment and to cut off existing coverage in place to age 6. The mother pushing this bill is a registered lobbyist for a national ABA provider company. It was a short sighted bill that was poorly written and took away the little existing coverage to pay for a treatment most autistic adults disagree with. I have an autistic son and used the existing mandate to get coverage for my son. And I’ve had the displeasure of interacting with Senator Unterman years ago and know that she does protect her employer’s profit in regard to special needs children. This bill was just another way of lining the pockets of lobbyists and not in the best interest “for the children.”

didyouknow March 31, 2014 at 10:11 pm

I think that is a very uncalled for close to your statement.

First, could you please elaborate on the habilitative services your son is able to receive, how old he is, and how much early intervention he received during the first 10 years of his life (that is assuming that he is older than 10).

LorieW March 31, 2014 at 11:35 pm

Autism testing at age 3. Could not confirm at that age. Non verbal at age 4. Started speech at age 4 through school system prior to Pre-K Head Start despite being over income. Up to 10% can be over income and special needs. Diagnosed at age 5. Speech and occupational therapy through private and school based. Read and integrated Floortime and RDI into therapy decisions and parenting method. Has always been mainstreamed despite school efforts to start him in SpEd only. 14 years old and in 9th grade. A and B student mostly. Has typical teen laziness. Had all his therapy covered until my spouse’s company went self-funded. Not currently using OT/ST.

It is not the best interest for the children of GA. This is a business and it is very naive to assume that there are no outside interests in this bill. Marcus/CHOA has their ABA clinic and so does everyone else involved. It is $35K per year up to age 6 guaranteed payment except for self funded and ACA policies. Then it’s dumped on the school system and with a grad rate of nearly 30% for students with disabilities, GA schools are so prepared. You are advocating taking away existing coverage for children 7+ for guaranteed payments for ABA. I do believe it is called for and should be said quite loudly. It was a badly written bill that people should have read and asked what the impact would have been for all of the children. The fact that I used it successfully is proof of that. I had no pockets to line. Just the best interests of my child and not at the expense of another child as this bill would have done.

didyouknow April 1, 2014 at 12:04 am

Does the bill cover floor time and RDI if you choose to have an outside provider come in? I am sure you did the best for you son, and I applaude your efforts and your son’s work.

Clearly, we are going to disagree on some things. I agree, all children should be covered and that coverage shouldn’t stop at 7. However, your statement about the motives behind the bill should be addressed.

Yes, there is a business behind ABA companies (along with every other service provider for autism), but I cannot believe that those people go in to the business with dreams of getting rich and lining their pockets. Furthermore, I do not believe the bill was schemed up to make these companies more money.

The people that are in the business have a genuine passion to help these kids, believe in their method and work, and believe the children can learn more than without it. If they wanted to “line their pockets,” I’m sure they would have gone into a different profession.

LorieW April 1, 2014 at 12:30 am

A little CHOA history lesson. Years ago, CHOA did ST and OT in clinics. Due to a loophole, they bill as a hospital based clinic and got reimbursed $100 more than a regular therapist. Their satellite sites were raking it in. Once the loophole was closed, they closed down all their clinic and only offer OT and ST inpatient at the hospital. Thousands of children were left without therapists. Mostly the Medicaid children. While a regular Medicaid provider got reimbursed around $35, CHOA was raking in $150 per visit. I work healthcare billing. It is always about money.

My son’s OT had a doctorate in Occupational Therapy and learned Floortime under Dr Greenspan. We billed it as his OT. We just used Floortime method.

If they wanted to not harm existing coverage, then the bill should have been taken off the table and corrected for submission next year. Judith from Autism Speaks and Anna Bullard both assured me that this would have been corrected and none had ever been.

Rick Day March 31, 2014 at 9:49 pm

tbh, most of us in the reform movement did not shed a tear when this happened. If anything, it is rallying many side liners and fence sitters to the Cannabis Question than ever before.

didyouknow March 31, 2014 at 9:57 pm

I find it odd that nobody has even mentioned Speaker Ralston on this topic. At the end of the session, he had ALL of the power to allow a vote on the bill. Despite all of the parent lobbyists at the Capitol, there were even more lobbyists for insurance companies there, which makes matters even more interesting.

Speaker Ralston’s largest campaign contributors-
$12,750 BlueCross BlueShield of Georgia
$12,200 Hospital Corporation of America
$10,000 State Farm Insurance
$9,900 Aflac
$7,400 United HealthCare Services Inc.
$7,500 Capital Health Management Inc.
$7,500 Community Health Systems executives
$7,500 Health Management LLC
$7,500 Wellcare of Georgia Inc.
$7,250 MAG Mutual Insurance Co.

It appears to me that he should be getting more of the blame and negative attention on this matter for obvious reasons.

ryanhawk April 1, 2014 at 9:29 am

No one likes big money in politics. Cagle’s disclosure (and Unterman’s) will show a similar pattern. But at least these donations are disclosed and available for us all to see. Unterman however is directly on the payroll of Amerigroup. How much is she paid? I’m going to guess that they pay her very well.

Cindy62 April 1, 2014 at 10:43 am

She could have taken the high road and let the medical marijuana bill pass, since there is no doubt it would have. Then, the parents who have moved away or are planning to could have been here in Georgia to help her work towards the autism coverage bill, which I have no doubt they would have.

If she is re-elected, I may move to Colorado, just on general principle. Politics in Georgia have been sickening lately.

AutismThroughOurEyes April 1, 2014 at 1:01 pm

To say that Autistic Adults don’t agree with ABA is in contention for understatement of the year. Indeed, many of us consider it child abuse.

The FACT of the matter is, as LorieW stated above, GA already has an existing Autism Mandate – OCGA 33-24-59.10. It covers ALL treatments – not just those many see as child abuse – THROUGHOUT the Autistics’ life – not just until their 7th birthday.

Renee wanted to gut that to line her own pockets and give official State sanction to a “therapy” the Autistic community views as just as horrible as the LGBT community views “exgay” “therapy”.

Perhaps if people want to help Autistics, they should listen to the Adult Autistics and not parents who have no frakkin clue what they are talking about.

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