The Ontario government will keep funding for autism services at $600 million a year as it moves towards a needs-based system that parents and advocates have been asking for.
In an email to members of its autism advisory panel sent Sunday, a spokesperson for Children, Community and Social Services Minister Todd Smith says it is asking that a revamp of the Ontario Autism Program be done within that funding amount.
The government, in announcing initial changes last February, was spending about $300 million, but that amount was doubled earlier in March when the previous minister said she’d heard from concerned families about the controversial changes that included means-testing for funding, and caps determined by age, not by severity of need.
While the government’s goal was to clear a wait-list of about 23,000 children, spreading funding to more families meant some would receive nowhere near the amount they needed for behavioural therapy, which can cost up to $80,000 a year.
Under that plan, “childhood budgets” were set at $20,000 a year for children under 6, up to a maximum of $140,000, and $5,000 a year after that up to age 18 to a maximum of $55,000.
At that time, then-minister Lisa MacLeod said the province would be reviewing that and implementing a needs-based system to better serve children.
Sources said the ministry is hoping for the changes to be fully in place by April 2020.
Panel members, however, are pushing for much sooner launch given the disruption in the system and uncertainty for families, sources say.
“In the interim, our priorities are: Greater certainty and support for children under the previous government’s needs-based program. That is why we are committing up-to an additional six-month extension of treatment, up-to or at, their current level of intensity,” said the Sunday email from Smith’s Chief of Staff Sarah Letersky.
“Continued support for children waiting to get into the Ontario Autism program. That means a continuation of the childhood budgets while the new program is being designed. Families who have already received a childhood budget or a letter inviting them to apply for one will continue as planned, and more families will be invited to apply.
“As discussed, we know this interim period will come with challenges. That is why we are committed to working with the panel, and all families and service providers, to ensure this transition is as seamless as possible.”
She also wrote that the autism advisory panel will be “asked to provide input and advice on the design of a needs-based program.”
The panel will also be “reviewing and analyzing the results and input received from the province-wide survey of families including, caregivers of children/youth with autism, the telephone town halls and other written submissions received” and “providing input and advice on the development of a consistent approach to describing children’s functional abilities and needs.”
Letersky said the panel will report back at the end of the summer.
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy
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Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb