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Ontario autism services waitlist grew to 27,600 children in 2019-2020, FAO says

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TORONTO — The Ontario government will need to more than double the funding for child autism services if it hopes to fulfill its goal of eliminating a long-standing waiting list for treatment, the province’s fiscal watchdog said Tuesday.

The report from Financial Accountability Officer Peter Weltman said the 2019-20 waiting list stands at 27,600 children, up from 25,900 in the 2018-19 fiscal year. The increase came as the province announced plans to revamp the funding model for childhood behavioural therapy programs, partially in a bid to address the waitlist that has grown steadily since 2011.

Weltman’s report, which examined three different funding options ahead of the government’s planned 2021 program launch, concluded the $600 million currently allocated to the effort won’t be enough to eliminate the wait list entirely, he said.

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Providing the province’s estimated 42,000 autistic children with service will cost more than double that amount, he added.

“You’re still going to have a significant waiting list, but it’s not as high as it was before,” Weltman said of the $600 million in funding. “If you as an MPP think, ‘Well, no, we really should clear the waitlist completely,’ then our report says, ‘OK, but that’s going to cost about $1.35 billion in Year 1.”

Therapy for some autistic children can cost as much as $95,000 a year.

Last year, Premier Doug Ford’s government changed the way it pays for treatment in a bid to eliminate waitlists. The measures reduced the average amount paid to families.

Following a backlash, the government announced it would create a needs-based program starting next year.

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Weltman said even with the $600 million budgeted for the program — which would provide an average child with $29,900 annually for therapy — waitlists would fall by more than 4,000 but still leave about 23,000 children in limbo.

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The report also found inflation and increasing need will drive the cost of the program up by $24 million a year, requiring Ontario to pay $96 million more by 2025-2026 to sustain service levels.

Social Services Minister Todd Smith said more than 22,000 children are receiving support through existing government programs and one-time funding.

“We are determined to get this right and will continue to support children and youth during the transition to the new needs-based Ontario Autism Program,” he said in a statement.

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The waitlist issue has long been a contentious one for Ontario’s political leaders.

Weltman found the waitlist for needs-based autism services grew at an average annual rate of nearly 48 per cent over eight years, from 1,600 children in 2011-12 to 24,900 in 2018-19 as the province expanded program eligibility.

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In 2019-20, the list reached 27,600 as the government stopped enrolling children into needs-based behavioural therapy programs and instead offered aged-based childhood budgets.

Liberal legislator Michael Coteau, who was social services minister when the previous Liberal government created a needs-based program, said the report shows the Ford government is leaving families behind.

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“The government cut funding to parents, left them to fend for themselves, and never once took into account the capacity of the system and whether or not people would even be able to get service,” he said.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government changes have hurt families.

“Over 27,600 children with autism in our province are not getting the needs-based services that they need and that they deserve,” she said. “It is just tragic and it is absolutely horrific that this government has done such a bad job.”

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Laura Kirby-McIntosh, head of the Ontario Autism Coalition, said the FAO report confirms many details families in the province have known for some time.

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She said it shows the Ford government’s changes to the treatment funding model substantially contributed to an increase in the waitlist.

“(Ford) didn’t need to blow the whole thing up,” she said. “Families have been asked to endure more than anybody should.”

Kirby-McIntosh said thousands of families are eager for the launch of the new needs-based program, adding the report underscores how log the waitlists remain.

“It’s so disheartening, on a policy level I have anger, on a parent level I have grief,” she said.

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