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Linda Walder Fiddle Testifies Before NJ State Assembly Health Committee

Author: The Bergen Record
Written On: Tue, 26 Feb 2008

Package of autism legislation advances Tuesday, February 26, 2008

BY ELISE YOUNG STAFF WRITER

A legislative committee Monday approved six bills designed to help New Jerseyans with autism, overriding concerns from insurers and even some advocates for the developmentally disabled.

The legislation -- including a health-insurance mandate, housing assistance and a school "buddies" initiative -- next will move to the full Assembly for a vote.

New Jersey has the country's highest rate of autism, with one in 94 children affected, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year, Governor Corzine signed eight pieces of autism-specific legislation, the state's biggest effort yet to address a neurological disorder that has no known cause or cure.

Monday's wave of bills before the Assembly Health and Services Committee drew a spillover crowd, many with an interest in compulsory insurance coverage for a therapy called applied behavior analysis, which is among the most promising and expensive treatments.

"Costs could be put on the backs of small businesses," said David Smith, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Association of Health Plans. "Others may lose coverage as a result of the cost increase associated with this mandate. ... All we're saying is that when you move a mandate bill forward, there are consequences. There are cost increases."

Some committee members said they, too, had reservations.

"This is a worthy cause," said Assemblyman Eric Munoz, R-Essex, a trauma surgeon. "The problem is, there are lots of worthy causes in American medicine."

But others pointed out that children with autism -- who can have trouble socializing and communicating -- have fewer chances of success if behavior-based therapies are delayed.

"To me, children are a priority," said Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, D-Paramus. "We need them to become productive citizens. They deserve it. They deserve to be productive adults."

That legislation, and the rest, all were released from committee.

One bill, to create a public advocate for autism issues, drew opposition from three representatives of the disabilities community. All said they were reluctant to stand in the way of any laws to serve a needy population, but ultimately they argued that the office would drain resources from the advocacy movement as a whole, putting the needs of people with autism ahead of those with cerebral palsy, mental retarda- tion and other disorders.

"You are fragmenting the developmentally disabled community," said Lowell Arye, executive director of the Alliance for the Betterment of Citizens with Disabilities.

Elizabeth Shea, a director for The Arc of New Jersey, said the legislation "makes us nervous." She said she believed that the autism office, which would exist within the Department of the Public Advocate, would cut into the staff working on similar issues.

But Linda Walder Fiddle of Ridgewood, whose Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation provides grants for autism programs, said the disorder's prevalence in New Jersey dictates swift action.

"This is an essential office that needs to be part of what we do in New Jersey -- a one-stop place," she said.

The committee approved the measure, but not without warnings from sev- eral lawmakers, who said they would not support it on the Assembly floor unless questions about staffing are resolved.

The remainder of the proposed legislation passed with little discussion.

The committee passed a bill encouraging the creation of a peers program in Grades 7 through 12, so typical students and those with autism could interact. It approved establishment of a Web site that would detail services available to families and individuals. And it supported the distribution of ID cards, which people with autism could explain to emergency workers why they may act frightened or confused.

The legislators also supported an initiative to encourage housing solutions, a growing need as children with autism age and their parents die or are no longer able to care for them.

"This is a big step forward to address the long, long waiting list that adult children have," Fiddle said.

A legislative committee Monday approved six bills designed to help New Jerseyans with autism, overriding concerns from insurers and even some advocates for the developmentally disabled.

The legislation -- including a health-insurance mandate, housing assistance and a school "buddies" initiative -- next will move to the full Assembly for a vote.

New Jersey has the country's highest rate of autism, with one in 94 children affected, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year, Governor Corzine signed eight pieces of autism-specific legislation, the state's biggest effort yet to address a neurological disorder that has no known cause or cure.

Monday's wave of bills before the Assembly Health and Services Committee drew a spillover crowd, many with an interest in compulsory insurance coverage for a therapy called applied behavior analysis, which is among the most promising and expensive treatments.

"Costs could be put on the backs of small businesses," said David Smith, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Association of Health Plans. "Others may lose coverage as a result of the cost increase associated with this mandate. ... All we're saying is that when you move a mandate bill forward, there are consequences. There are cost increases."

Some committee members said they, too, had reservations.

"This is a worthy cause," said Assemblyman Eric Munoz, R-Essex, a trauma surgeon. "The problem is, there are lots of worthy causes in American medicine."

But others pointed out that children with autism -- who can have trouble socializing and communicating -- have fewer chances of success if behavior-based therapies are delayed.

"To me, children are a priority," said Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, D-Paramus. "We need them to become productive citizens. They deserve it. They deserve to be productive adults."

That legislation, and the rest, all were released from committee.

One bill, to create a public advocate for autism issues, drew opposition from three representatives of the disabilities community. All said they were reluctant to stand in the way of any laws to serve a needy population, but ultimately they argued that the office would drain resources from the advocacy movement as a whole, putting the needs of people with autism ahead of those with cerebral palsy, mental retarda- tion and other disorders.

"You are fragmenting the developmentally disabled community," said Lowell Arye, executive director of the Alliance for the Betterment of Citizens with Disabilities.

Elizabeth Shea, a director for The Arc of New Jersey, said the legislation "makes us nervous." She said she believed that the autism office, which would exist within the Department of the Public Advocate, would cut into the staff working on similar issues.

But Linda Walder Fiddle of Ridgewood, whose Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation provides grants for autism programs, said the disorder's prevalence in New Jersey dictates swift action.

"This is an essential office that needs to be part of what we do in New Jersey -- a one-stop place," she said.

The committee approved the measure, but not without warnings from sev- eral lawmakers, who said they would not support it on the Assembly floor unless questions about staffing are resolved.

The remainder of the proposed legislation passed with little discussion.

The committee passed a bill encouraging the creation of a peers program in Grades 7 through 12, so typical students and those with autism could interact. It approved establishment of a Web site that would detail services available to families and individuals. And it supported the distribution of ID cards, which people with autism could explain to emergency workers why they may act frightened or confused.

The legislators also supported an initiative to encourage housing solutions, a growing need as children with autism age and their parents die or are no longer able to care for them.

"This is a big step forward to address the long, long waiting list that adult children have," Fiddle said.