More than a dozen years ago, Dr. Ralph Northam helped Mark Llobell on the path to a diagnosis for his grandson, Mark III, who has autism.
This week, as governor, Northam completed Llobell’s long political battle for insurance to pay for services to Virginians with autism, no matter their age.
The governor signed a pair of bills on Monday that will remove the age cap on requiring insurance coverage of services — now at 10 years old — effective on Jan. 1 for at least 10,000 Virginians with autism.
“It’s wonderful,” said Llobell, a Virginia Beach resident who had consulted with Northam, a pediatric neurologist at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters, for a diagnosis of his grandson, now 14. “I’m just glad and grateful our families will finally receive the services that doctors prescribe.”
For Northam, the legislation epitomizes why he ran for public office in the first place.
“One of my primary motivations for entering public service was finding an avenue to address the frustrations and challenges that I would routinely encounter as a physician trying to help families navigate the insurance landscape,” the governor said Thursday in an announcement of his action.
“Now, individuals with autism will have access to the coverage they need, no matter their age — that will have profound impact on families,” he said. “Both Democrats and Republicans have been working on this legislation for years and I’m proud to sign this legislation that exemplifies what we can achieve when we come together to improve the lives of the Virginians we serve.”
The legislation got a big boost from the same legislator who had let it die in committee last year on the last day of the legislative session.
House Appropriations Chairman Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, asked Llobell then to work with him between General Assembly sessions to help him understand the need for the legislation and allay concerns about its effect on insurers and the businesses they cover.
This year, Jones enlisted the support of House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, who asked Del. Bob Thomas, R-Stafford, to carry it in the House of Delegates, where it faced the highest hurdle.
“The advocates were tireless in their efforts,” Jones said Thursday. “I am very pleased to see the legislation signed by the governor.”
The measure already had strong support in the Senate, where Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, sponsored the legislation.
“As someone who worked on this legislation for more than 10 years, I have seen the impact on families whose children were cut off from coverage,” Vogel said in the governor’s announcement. “We only succeeded this year because of their hard work and unbelievable commitment all of these years.”
Llobell began the search for insurance coverage of autism services after his grandson was diagnosed in 2007 at age 2.
For three years, he and other advocates had no success. In 2011, the General Assembly adopted legislation mandating coverage for ages 2-6, or under the average age for diagnosis. In 2015, the legislature raised the age cap to 10, where it has remained, despite determined efforts on both sides of the aisle and both chambers to remove it entirely.
During that span, Llobell helped found the Virginia Autism Project and the Virginia Autism Foundation, which he leads as CEO. He also spent his life savings on services for his formerly non-verbal grandson, who this year led the Pledge of Allegiance at a news conference for the legislation.
“It’s been a long journey,” he said. “I’ve been vacationing in Richmond for 12 years, every January and February, trying to get this legislation passed.”
For Llobell, the legislation represents the opportunity for Virginians with autism to learn to care for themselves, communicate with others, attend public schools, and become productive citizens. It requires intensive services — especially applied behavioral analysis to engage those with autism — but he contends the alternative is far more costly to society.
“If you don’t get them the kinds of services they need, they become wards of the state,” he said. “The parents become caregivers for life.”
Dr. Hughes Melton, Virginia commissioner of behavioral health and developmental services, said the legislation’s approval “symbolizes yet another way that Governor Northam’s administration is addressing significant gaps in insurance coverage parity in the commonwealth.”
“Individuals with developmental disabilities such as autism need high-quality health insurance for all of their lives, not just an eight-year period,” Melton said.