A controversial bill a year ago gets new life in the House, which has given tentative approval to a requirement that health insurers cover autism.

A year ago, concerns about the impact on health insurance premiums kept the bill from coming to the House floor for debate. This year, a measure stands on the doorstep of approval.

Sponsor Dwight Scharnhorst, a representative from Manchester, made his final plea prior to the voice vote on HCS HB 1311&1341.

“If you can’t see it from a strictly humanistic standpoint, take a look at it from (an) economic standpoint of the impact over the lives of these children when they don’t receive a proper diagnosis and treatment at an early enough juncture and their lives are impaired and they pass into a period of darkness that will last their entire life,” Scharnhorst said from the House floor in his closing statement.

The House moved the bill forward on a voice vote. All indications are that it will clear a roll call vote and move to the Senate.

Afterward, Scharnhorst spoke for the families with autistic children.

“And I want to say to the families that have waited so long, we’re finally on the road to a point to where they can see light at the end of that tunnel and that light is so important to these kids,” Scharnhorst told reporters.

The House bill would require group insurance coverage up to $36,000 annually for autistic children up to 18. The mandate applies to insurance policies regulated by the state, which extends the coverage to about a third of the children diagnosed with an autistic disorder. A Senate version is more generous, providing $55,000 annually for behavioral treatment. Such treatment is costly, but has been shown to have a dramatic impact on autistic children. Provisions have been added to keep the mandate from having a dramatic impact on health insurance costs for small businesses.

A year ago, the Senate approved an autism mandate, but the measure never saw House floor debate. House leadership, worried that it would drastically drive up health insurance premiums, prevented the bill from moving to the floor for debate. Governor Nixon harshly criticized the House for its lack of action. Work during the interim led to the action taken last night during a rare evening session in the House for this early in the legislative session.

AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [:60]