TORONTO – Ontario’s social services ministry directed autism therapy providers in the fall to only take on new clients with previous service commitments, but the minister denied Monday that the move amounted to freezing the wait list for treatment.
The revelation of the directive comes amid anger from parents and advocates over the government’s new autism program, which they say will leave many kids without the level of treatment they need.
Children, Community and Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod has said the changes are intended to clear the wait list of 23,000 children, as many have been waiting years for services.
The ministry said in a statement Monday that in October agencies were told to only bring new clients into treatment if service commitments had already been made – confirmation the government provided after reports of the situation started circulating over the weekend.
“You are only bringing new clients into evidence-based behavioural service from those families to whom previous service commitments have been made,” the government told service providers in the fall.
Government documents suggest that service providers were instructed not to tell families about the directive.
MacLeod denied that making no new offers of service beyond existing commitments amounted to a freeze.
“We never at one point in time said we were freezing, but there was only so much money that we were able to offer,” MacLeod said.
She has said that the program was bankrupt when her government came to power last year and that it needed a one-time cash infusion of $100 million just to keep it afloat.
For Heather Jensen, whose nearly four-year-old daughter has been on the wait list for two years, learning of the ministry directive was disheartening. She said she was told in December that her daughter had been approved for the autism program, but after filling out paperwork in January, she never heard back.
“You have this hope inside you that some of these things you can’t deal with alone as a parent she’s going to have once she starts therapy, and that just was shattered,” Jensen said. “We sat there for the last two months waiting for that phone call for her to start therapy and it was never going to come.”
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said the ministry directive looks to him like a freeze.
“The minister’s just trying to put spin on something they’d already decided to do and I think it’s wrong,” he said.
NDP critic Monique Taylor said the government “clearly” froze the waiting list.
“Regardless of what the minister has to say, the proof is in the pudding,” she said.
Under the new autism program, families will get up to $20,000 per year for treatment for children under six and $5,000 a year for children six to 18, up to a lifetime maximum of $140,000. But intensive therapy can cost up to $80,000 a year, and parents are calling for funding to be based on children’s individual needs, instead of just their age.
Only families with an adjusted annual net family income of under $55,000 will be eligible for the maximum annual amounts, with funding determined on a sliding scale up to a $250,000 income.
Autism Canada released a statement Monday calling the program “dangerously flawed.”
“The plan, as stated by the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, is misinformed, disingenuous and vague,” it wrote. “It has thrown the autism community into crisis and the resulting impact will be felt across health, education and social services in Ontario for years to come.”
Interim Liberal leader John Fraser has called on MacLeod to release the new program’s full income thresholds so families know how much to expect when it kicks in on April 1.
© 2019 The Canadian Press