By Greg Bluestein

Georgia Republicans who have long rejected the mandates in President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul managed to find one insurance requirement they could get behind.

Gov. Nathan Deal signed legislation Wednesday that requires insurers to provide up to $30,000 a year in coverage for children 6 and under who have been diagnosed with autism. It makes Georgia the nation's 41st state to require insurers to cover some therapy for kids with autism.

The law, which passed both chambers unanimously, came after a years-long effort by parents of children with autism who made deeply personal appeals to legislators. They were led by Anna Bullard, who struggled to pay for therapy for daughter Ava when she was 3. Ava, now an energetic fifth-grader, is the namesake of the legislation.

"This was our seventh year of fighting for this and I still can't believe it," said Anna Bullard. "Now kids with autism have a brighter future -- a brighter future than ever before. There is hope for them."

House Bill 429 earned final approval on the session's final day after legislators negotiated the end of a bitter stalemate. House leaders blocked the bill for years over concerns the mandate would hurt some small businesses until acceding to a compromise version that slightly lowered the amount of coverage required.

As part of the deal, Republican state Rep. Richard Smith is also set to introduce legislation that asks voters in November 2016 to levy a 0.2 percent sales tax increase to raise as much as $300 million for autism treatments for children up to 18.

It took a united front among political leaders from both parties to get the measure this far, but it was particularly painful for some Republicans who sought to untether it from the strong anti-Obamacare sentiment in the Legislature.

In the election-year politicking that drove last year's legislative session, Deal signed legislation that gave the Legislature the final authority to decide whether the state should expand its Medicaid program and another bill that bars state or local governments from advocating for Medicaid expansion.

A year later, Georgia will now usher in a new insurance mandate with the unequivocal support of both Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who took the rare step of testifying in support of the legislation at a committee meeting. State Rep. Greg Morris, one of the more conservative Republicans in the House, said his caucus backed it partly for pocketbook reasons.

"Every penny that is spent covering autism insurance is going to come back to us dressed at a dime," said Morris, R-Vidalia. "It's a moral issue, but this also makes good economic sense. We're saving so much money on healthcare costs down the road."

He and other supporters said the new law has nothing to do with Obamacare, and they note that their push for the legislation predates the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act. It also came amid staunch and unrelenting opposition from some influential business groups.

Chief among them was the National Federation of Independent Business, which warned that more businesses may see their healthcare costs rise with the mandate.

"When the cost of health insurance goes up, employers have to find the money some place," said Kyle Jackson, the association's state director. "That could mean reducing everyone's hours or leaving vacant jobs unfilled or cutting staff."

The Bullards, though, said that new law is well worth that cost. Ava, who is now 10, said she'll now fight to encourage lawmakers to lift the cap so it can apply to all children.

"It's amazing that kids will get coverage because of us," she said, her smile beaming. "It's hard to believe."

(c)2015 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)