Ontario’s new autism program could save the province up to $100 million, says economist
An Ottawa economist and father of two children with autism says his analysis suggests the province’s new autism program will save the province as much as $100 million a year.
The province announced its new “childhood budget” on Feb. 6, saying the new program will give a child diagnosed with autism who enters the program at the age of two as much as $140,000 by the time that child is 18. The child budget replaces the Ontario Autism Program, which offered families more funding but had 23,000 children on a waiting list.
Mike Moffatt, an economics professor Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario and senior director of the Smart Prosperity Institute in Ottawa, said he wanted to compare the cost of the old program with the new.
“I’m not a policy expert in health care. I’m just doing this as a dad of children on the waiting list,” said Moffatt, the father of Mats, who turns four next month and will be starting private therapy in a few months at a cost of $82,000 a year. Moffatt’s daughter Maggie, 7, has more modest needs, but has received speech therapy.
The new program will be geared to low- to middle-income families. Funding will be clawed back for families earning as little as $55,000 a year, a figure confirmed Tuesday by The Canadian Press.
There is much that is unknown about the childhood budget, which is set to come into effect on April 1. That includes how the needs-tested formula works — it is believed that families with net incomes over $250,000 will get nothing, for example, even though therapy can cost over $80,000 a year.
There are also no details about when families will receive funding, how much they will receive, what they can spend it on and how reimbursement will work.
Knowing the details is important for both taxpayers and parents, said Moffatt. “It’s a weird way to do public policy. We don’t know how the transition will work.”
When Moffatt did his analysis he plugged in a “generous” set of parameters for how much each child will receive and a 90-per-cent utilization rate for the new program. According to this scenario, if there are about 8,300 children in the current program receiving service, with another 23,000 on waiting lists, at 90 per cent utilization, about 31,000 children will be in the program.
The children will also receive a variable amount of funding, depending on their ages and their parents’ income. Those under six would receive as much as $20,000 a year, while those between six and 18 would get as much as $5,000 a year. Assuming there are 12,000 in the five-and-under group and 20,000 in the older group, the “childhood budget” will cost about $245 million a year, about $100 million less than his estimate of about $350 million for the Ontario Autism Program.
Even if other parameters are used, Moffatt suspects that the new program will cost $50 million to $100 million less than the existing program.
“Are they taking money out of this program?” he said.
This newspaper requested comment from the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services. A spokesman said he would “look into this” but did not respond further.
The province has already said a child who enters the program at age two could receive up to $140,000, but another child entering the program at seven would receive a maximum of $55,000. But there has been no information about how much funding will be clawed back at various income levels.
“The information that has been provided has been sparse to say the least. There have been no details for how the sliding scale will work,” said Kerry Monaghan, the mother of Jack, 5, who has severe autism and has been getting 25 hours of service a week through the Ontario Autism Program since March 2018. Monaghan’s daughter Charlotte, 3, who has a milder diagnosis, has been on the wait list since July 2017.
“These changes are expected to happen in 41 days. There is no agency in place to direct families.”
When the new program was announced on Feb. 6, Monaghan assumed Jack would be receiving $20,000 a year, a significant cut from the $80,000 a year the province currently pays for his therapy.
“And now we are learning it’s less,” she said. “There is no transition plan in place. These kids rely on appropriate levels of transition, never mind funding. There’s no information about how this will roll out.”
Parents across the province have been protesting the changes to the program for almost two weeks. In Ottawa, there have been two protests in front of the Barrhaven constituency office of Nepean MPP Lisa MacLeod, who is the Minister of Children, Community and Social Services.
Two more protests are planned for MacLeod’s office, one on Friday between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. and another on Saturday between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.