Ontario autism program overhaul aims to target wait-list

Parents of children with autism will be given the power to choose what services they want — but there will be a total family budget of $140,000 and high-earners will no longer be eligible.

In an announcement Wednesday in Toronto, Lisa MacLeod, the minister of children, community and social services, also said the government is doubling funding for diagnostic hubs and planning to clear the 23,000-child wait-list within the next 18 months.

Waiting for a diagnosis — which currently can take more than two years — can “throw a family into crisis,” said MacLeod.

“This is the best approach and the most fair approach to make sure every single child” is well-served,” she added.

The amount of funding will depend on the length of time a child will be in the program, and support will be targeted to lower- and middle-income families. Families with annual incomes above $250,000 will no longer be eligible for funding, MacLeod said.

“This is no better than 2016,” she said. A limit of $140,000 is not nearly enough for most families — especially those whose children have severe needs and can spend tens of thousands a year on therapy, she added.

“It ignores the fact that there are some kids on the severe end of the spectrum requiring tons of support and time and those on the mild end” who don’t, said Kirby-McIntosh.

“I’m diabetic and so is my husband, but it doesn’t make sense to give us the same amount of insulin.”

She said she’s “terrified” about means testing. Just because families are making more than $250,000 “doesn’t mean they have $80,000 lying around in the couch cushions.”

She said she was “devastated” by the direction the government is headed.

In her announcement, MacLeod said the government is doubling funding for five diagnostic hubs to $5.5 million a year for the next two years to address the diagnosis waiting list of 2,400 children, who currently wait on average for 31 weeks.

“Today, almost three out of every four children who require autism supports continue to be stranded on wait-lists, due to the cynicism and incompetence of the previous government,” MacLeod told reporters at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, one of diagnostic hubs.

“The parents of these children have told me they are feeling abandoned. We cannot, in good conscience, continue treating these parents and children like lower-class citizens, so we are introducing reforms to provide them with the fairness and equality they deserve.”

Parents of children with autism launched protests against the previous Liberal government in the spring of 2016 when it announced that kids over age 5 would be cut off from funding for intensive therapy.

The Liberals ultimately backed down and installed a new minister — Michael Coteau — to roll out a new program, which proved to be much more popular with parents.

Coteau announced more funding, a quicker start date, no age cut-offs, and a direct funding option to allow parents to either receive funding to pay for private therapy or use government-funded services.

Wednesday’s changes announced by the Progressive Conservative government include establishing a new agency to help families register for the program, assess their funding eligibility, distribute the money and help them choose which services to purchase.

Clinical supervisors will have to meet program qualifications by April 1, 2021 and the government will be publishing a list of verified service providers.

With files from The Canadian Press

Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy

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