Critical behavioral therapy cut for California autistic children

April 22, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
Sometimes state budget cuts end up finding unintended victims. That's the case right now for a couple of hundred families who have a child with autism. One day they had some critical help, the next day, it was gone.

"It's kind of like the rug being pulled out from under you," said Rachel Harris of Orange County.

Harris knows how Applied Behavioral Analysis, or ABA therapy, has helped her 4-year-old autistic son. Studies show it improves communication and relationships while reducing aggression and self-injury.

"We saw improvements in that when we were doing the therapy. It was so exciting," said Harris.

But as the state slowly phases out the Healthy Families health care program to cut costs and moves nearly 900,000 kids into Medi-Cal, something went wrong. Hundreds of low income families using autism services were told their ABA therapy would continue in the new program, but instead, they were completely cut off April 1st.

"We have certainly have seen regression since then," said Harris.

Families have been fearing for months their ABA benefits would be cut off during the transition. Nobody listened and nobody can explain why.

The Department of Health Care Services didn't provide anyone for an on-camera interview saying its people were too busy preparing for a legislative hearing the topic.

In a late statement, though, the agency said: "...we are working to ensure Medi-Cal members continue to have appropriate access to behavioral health services."

So we asked Senate President Darrell Steinberg, who lead the charge that forced private insurers to cover ABA, what he's doing about it.

"We're fighting to change this. Every child with autism should have the benefit of this early intervention," said Steinberg.

The problem is the improvements made during ABA therapy fade with time.

"Since we've lost the therapy, we've had a couple of incidences where he's been quite aggressive. He's climbed on top of the refrigerator," said Harris.

"We need to ask that they stop and not transfer anymore kids and not harm anymore kids," said Kristin Jacobson from the group Autism Deserves Equal Coverage.

The next wave of families moving into Medi-Cal is May 1st.


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