Ontario government apologizes for autism program changes; needs-based model won’t launch until next April

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TheGlobeandMail.com – Canada
July 29, 2019.   Caroline Alphonso, Education Reporter

The Ontario government has apologized to the families of autistic children for a plan that cut thousands of dollars from the money they receive for therapy after outrage from parents, but said the new funding arrangement will not be rolled out until next spring.

Todd Smith, Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, acknowledged for the first time on Monday that changes to the autism program announced earlier this year were poorly conceived.

“It’s clear to me that we didn’t get the redesign right the first time. I’m here to tell you we will now,” Mr. Smith told reporters at a news conference in Toronto. He added: “We are certainly sorry for the anxiety this has caused parents across Ontario.”

Mr. Smith said the government would reverse its direction and provide families with funding based on the needs of individual children. He said the budget for autism therapy would remain at $600-million. Under the earlier PC government plan, families receive a set amount based on their child’s age.

Some families said the capped funding – $20,000 a year for children under 6, and $5,000 a year after that – was nowhere near what they needed for therapy, which can cost up to $80,000 a year.

Former minister of community and social services Lisa MacLeod had said the government’s original plan, announced in February, would clear a backlog of 23,000 children awaiting treatment.

The government’s change in direction comes after months of protests from parents, and an internal review, obtained by The Globe and Mail, that called for an immediate reset of the government’s strategy. The report prepared by Toronto-area Progressive Conservative MPP Roman Baber said Doug Ford’s government purposely spread misinformation about the costs and the backlog of children waiting for treatment to justify a funding model that would leave families “destitute.”

Mr. Smith’s spokeswoman, Christine Wood, said the government is working toward implementing the changes in the new fiscal year, which begins in April, 2020.

Laura Kirby-McIntosh, president of the Ontario Autism Coalition and a member of the government’s autism advisory panel, said not having a program based on needs in place until next April is unacceptable.

“I don’t think they understand the sense of urgency that’s out there in the community right now,” she said. “How much longer are we expected to wait while they mess with our children’s lives?”

Ottawa parent Kerry Monaghan, who has two children on the autism spectrum, said she was disappointed to learn the plan wouldn’t be fully in place until next spring.

“What’s so painful about that is that it could have happened April 1, 2019, had Lisa MacLeod taken the time to consult with families and experts,” Ms. Monaghan said.

She added: “It was good to have somewhat of an apology today that acknowledged the anxiety in this community, but it does not buy back the time.”

Some parents had said their children faced the prospect of returning to school full-time in the fall and regressing under the system the PCs introduced earlier this year because their funding would have been cut by tens of thousands of dollars. (Under the previous Liberal government program, funding was unlimited for children in the program.)

Ms. MacLeod was demoted in a recent cabinet shuffle to the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport.

Mr. Smith said on Monday that the changes to the Progressive Conservative plan will likely not clear the waiting list. (Mr. Baber’s report said the government’s figures on the backlog do not account for children registered with more than one service provider or returning for further therapy.)

Mr. Smith said the government doubled the funding to $600-million earlier this year after hearing concerns from families, and that money will serve more children and families. An autism advisory panel the government created will develop a needs-based program within that budget. A spokeswoman for Mr. Smith said the government will announce the details later this year after it receives the panel’s recommendation by the end of August.

The funding based on age will continue in the meantime, Mr. Smith said. He also announced another extension of up to six months for children who receive therapy under the Liberal-government system.

Michael Coteau, a Liberal MPP and the former minister responsible for the autism file, said in a statement that parents had their “lives thrown upside-down by Premier Doug Ford’s misguided and flawed changes to the Ontario autism program.”

He added: “Now, at long last, the government appears to finally be reversing course, at least in part.”

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-ontario-government-apologizes-for-autism-program-changes-needs-based/

 

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