SALT LAKE CITY — House Republicans are proposing a pilot program they're calling "a Utah solution" to the issue of whether insurance coverage for autism should be mandated.

The program, outlined during Tuesday's House GOP caucus meeting, would serve some 800 autistic children ages 2 to 6 whose parents don't have insurance or are covered by either the Public Employees Health Program or Medicaid.

Autism "has become an important priority for us," said House Majority Assistant Whip Ronda Menlove, R-Garland, calling the new language being drafted for HB272 "a great alternative to a mandate."

Menlove is sponsoring both HB272 and another bill, HB69, that mandates insurance companies cover autism. She said her preference is for the pilot program, acknowledging that lawmakers are feeling pressured to find a way to help families with autistic children.

There's interest from private insurers in helping to pay for the pilot as a way to avoid a mandate, she said. "It's very encouraging."

Just how much the pilot program will cost remains to be seen. Menlove said she wants a total of $6 million from the state for the two-year program. "I'm a person who's going to think big," she said. "But I'm also realistic."

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, told the majority caucus they'll be asked to approve an as-yet-undetermined amount towards the pilot program. The amount is still being negotiated with private insurers, the governor's office and the Senate, she said.

The revised bill with details of the program and its funding may be heard by the end of the week.

"Here's the deal," the speaker said. "We're going to pay for these kids one way or other," either through funding special education classes or through offering assistance before they reach school age.

"This, I believe, is a good buy for the taxpayer," Lockhart said.

House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper, told the caucus he had to be convinced the pilot program was a good idea. "This is not the bleeding heart caucus. That's the Democrats," he said.

But with 29 states already mandating coverage, Hughes said the issue isn't going to go away. "It's easy for us to be magnanimous with other people's money," he said. The pilot program "allows us to do something real."

Several members of the caucus related their own stories of family members with autism, including Rep. Craig Frank, R-Cedar Hills, whose son with Asperger's syndrome will graduate this year from high school with honors.

"I'm concerned we don't take away parents' responsibility and mandate to take care of their own children," Frank said, describing his family as blessed to be able to take of their son's needs within their own home.

Menlove, who holds a doctorate in special education from Utah State University, said the pilot program will "provide some training and some opportunities" for families. "I want this to be done the right way."

By making the coverage a pilot program, Lockhart said it would not be tied as a mandate to the Affordable Care Act advocated by President Barack Obama, now the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court challenge.

"We just don't know what the future is going to look like," the speaker said.

Gov. Gary Herbert has included the autism program on a list of potential uses for Utah's $23 million share of a federal settlement with mortgage lenders. He would steer more than $17 million of the settlement to progams dealing with housing and foreclosure.

Another bill — SB138, sponsored Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross — would have made Menlove's HB69 too expensive to implement. Weiler's proposal would require the state to pay for any increased costs that insurance mandates might bring to Utah public education employees. The bill has passed the Senate and is awaiting a hearing in the House.

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