Ford Government faces implementation delays of “needs-based” autism program into 2022 as waitlist grows by 83%

Sometimes things don’t go as planned, but when it comes to the Ford government’s handling of the autism program, again and again, they make unenforced errors and break their promises.

Case in point is their rollout of the newly designed “needs based” Ontario Autism Program. The government hasn’t met any of its dates for its implementation of Core Services, and there’s little reason to believe they’ll meet their latest commitments.

Initially when MPP Todd Smith replaced Lisa MacLeod as the minister in charge of the autism program in June 2019, he committed to having a needs-based program in place by April 2020. But just before the 2019 Christmas break, Smith announced that the program would be delayed until sometime in 2021. In February 2021, Smith provided an update that a pilot Core Services program of 600 kids would begin in March followed by at least 8,000 kids in the new program by the end of 2021.

As we near September 2021, the Core Services pilot program does not have 600 kids in service. Some kids have been registered and some have received their funding, and the government says they’re close to having 600 kids registered, but it’s taken 6 months just to get started.

Another key element in the government’s plan requires an Independent Intake Organization (IIO) operational during the Summer of 2021. The IIO’s mandate is to manage the intake and registration of children entering the Ontario Autism Program and hire the Care Coordinators responsible for the intake process. While technically there’s one month of summer left, the contract for the IIO has yet to be awarded.

Given that there’s only 4 months left in 2021, it’s safe to say that the government will not be able to pull off having 8,000 kids in the program by the end of 2021. Another commitment broken.

To make matters worse, the chatter from those close to the program suggests that it will take one year after the pilot program to enroll 8,000 kids into Core Services. Presuming the pilot ends later in 2021, we could be looking at late 2022 before the government has 8,000 kids in the program.

This is an unmitigated disaster for Minister Fullerton and the Ford Government to have this issue persist into the Ontario provincial election in June 2022. The last thing the government wants is the return of protests outside their MPP offices, but that’s exactly what may happen.

Politics aside, the impact to children waiting for their Ontario Autism Program services is devastating to their development. The government froze the waitlist in the Fall of 2018, now it appears that a fully functioning program won’t be in place until the Fall of 2022 — THAT’S FOUR YEARS OF DELAY!

Incredibly, the government’s target of having 8,000 kids in the program is actually 2,000 less than the 10,000 that were in the program when they froze the waitlist in 2018. That’s right, the government aims to have 2,000 less kids in core services compared to the OAP program they inherited despite doubling the budget.

So much for the government’s original “Clear the Waitlist” marketing of the new autism program. It’s now been 2 years since Todd Smith vowed to fix the program and the waitlist for core services has grown by 83%.

With an ever growing waitlist and a small target of just 8,000 in Core Services, it’s likely many kids will face years before receiving needs-based therapy or never at all. When the government doubled the autism program budget, many assumed that the number of kids in service would at least double, going from 10,000 to 20,000 in core services. It’s flabbergasting that the government can’t speak to any modelling in place to project what the target number of children in service should be. All we have is this target of 8,000 in service. We don’t even know if this 8,000 includes the children with legacy behavioural plans of which I estimate there are 3,300 remaining, or if it represents 8,000 coming off the waitlist.

If Fullerton cannot right the ship in time, I can see her repeating one of Todd Smith’s moves and offer an additional “interim one-time funding” to try and quell angry parents from protesting within the 2022 election season.

However, implementation delays are not the sole culprit in what is riling up advocates and parents to renew their protests. There are many other issues in the government’s plan that are objectionably not needs-based, such as:

  1. Care Coordinators determining funding without clinician input — qualified clinicians will need to fit their treatment plan within the Care Coordinators allocation if the parents can’t foot the difference. This is not what the Autism Advisory Panel recommended. The panel had Care Coordinators forecast the level of need for waitlist management purposes and clinicians would report back the actual service plan so Care Coordinators could adjust the forecast accordingly.
  2. Age-based funding brackets — age doesn’t determine need, yet the government has created 4 age funding brackets that decrease funding as age increases. Caps should be at the service level, not based on age.
  3. A system with pre-determined funding brackets is inherently flawed — when funding does not meet a child’s needs, there will some with unmet needs and others with too much funding. This would be like going to the hospital where a triage nurse provides you with a pre-determined funding bracket for your hospital visit without consulting with the doctors/clinicians on the required treatment.

Minister Fullerton has much work to do if she’s to salvage the Ontario Autism Program. It’s not too late to make changes and get kids into service ASAP. Keeping with the status quo is simply not a politically viable option as media coverage of protests needs to be avoided going into the 2022 Ontario election. If Fullerton hasn’t come up with a plan over the summer, she’ll need to act fast as she will be hearing from her fellow MPPs really soon as parents and advocates turn up the heat in their call for action.

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Scott Corbett

Scott Corbett

Political Scientist turned IT professional serving Canadians in the public service. Father of 2 incredible boys on the autism spectrum.