Remembering Richard Smith

It was a rainy Saturday afternoon in 2014 and the boomer on the other end of the line was starting to piss me off.

As I begun to tell him about what it was like to be the parent of an autistic child, he grew impatient with me. Downright dismissive. He cut me off persistently. Everything I was saying were arguments that he had heard before, and on top of that I was a lowly freshman and he was a powerful chairman and he effortlessly let me know the pecking order of the world I was now in; the Georgia House of Representatives.

After that call I must admit that I did not like Richard Smith very much.

The bill I was asking him to consider was Ava’s Law. It happened to be the very first piece of legislation I ever signed my name to and it would give hope to autistic children all over Georgia. Only Richard Smith, the chairman of the House Insurance Committee, hated the bill because it would create a new mandate that insurance companies must cover autism.

Chairman Smith was perfectly within his rights to be opposed to the bill on these grounds. It isn’t terribly conservative to support an insurance mandate most of the time. And with fighting Obamacare the zeitgeist of the day, being opposed to anything related to mandates was an easy answer. In fact, because of my conservative reputation, my support of it turned many heads.

But I had seen with my own eyes how an insurance mandate can be the most conservative option on the table to deal with a problem. It certainly is way better than a subsidy, which is what some had been seriously pitching.

Richard Smith was unmoved. He worried that the mandate would cause costs to skyrocket and premiums along with it. There is a certain logic to that thought process. “Show me real data,” he would respond to the pleas of parents of autistic kids. It was a maddening, impossible, and yet reasonable request. But how do we get him the numbers he’d require if we couldn’t try it first?

In stepped Governor Nathan Deal, who added a budget item for autism coverage to the State Health Benefit Plan which covered the 670,000 state employees. It wasn’t far reaching, but with that large of a sample size it would give us real data on just how expensive early autism interventions would cost insurers. After the first year the claims were a tiny fraction of what was appropriated in the budget.

Richard Smith had the data he was looking for all those years. And you know what he did? He went 180 degrees in the opposite direction and on March 15th, 2018, he brought SB 118, Ava’s Law, and Autism mandate, to the floor of the House.

It was among the highest moments of my legislative career to see Richard Smith in the well presenting that bill. Here was a man who wasn’t afraid to change course when the evidence challenged his preconceived notions. When he had once been the very public roadblock to reform, he now led the charge. And because of that willingness to discard a dearly held belief when the evidence pointed him in a different direction, autistic kids in Georgia now have more hope than they ever did before. It was the kind of leadership we should all expect, but is exceedingly rare in politics.

And I celebrated him for it. Here’s the speech I gave at the time. And I meant every word.

Thank you Richard Smith. Thank you for your humility, your humbleness. Thank you for your logic and reason. Thank you for your leadership.

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