The Ford government may underspend the Ontario autism budget by $192 million before delivering new program in 2021

MPP Todd Smith, Minister of Children, Community and Social Services

At Todd Smith’s December 17th news conference, the Minister of Children, Community and Social Services announced that his ministry would not make good on it’s promise to have a needs-based autism program live by April 2020. Instead Smith announced that the “core services” that children of autism need will not be available until sometime in 2021.

With that news, it’s likely that at least 2 full fiscal year budgets will have passed without any children moving off the waitlist and into needs-based services.

The 2019–20 and 2020–21 program budgets are $600M each, so with $1.2B on the line, how much is likely to be directed at children?

First lets look at the 3 groups of recipients:

  1. Legacy OAP children. These children are receiving a clinically prescribed amount of ABA based services.
  2. Childhood budget children. These children received invitations for the aged based annual budgets of $20k or $5k between April and December 2019 and are eligible for one additional renewal after their one year budget anniversary. The first cheques went out in June 2019, making June 2020 the first opportunity for renewal.
  3. All the other waitlist children. These kids will receive a one-time age based $20k or $5k payment between January and March 2020.

Let’s do some math to estimate the costs for the 3 groups over the 2 fiscal years 2019–20 and 2020–21 (Ontario government fiscal years start in April, end in March).

Let’s start by looking at legacy budgets. The 2018–19 budget was $321M, however we know the actual spend from the public accounts had a $40M overspend for a total expenditure of $361M. (This is what led the Tories to claim that the OAP was bankrupt and broken.)

However, to estimate the costs of continuing service for the legacy OAP children, we need to look at the allocated line item amount for ABA therapy. The Roman Baber report had a breakdown of the budget which showed that ABA therapy amounted for $226M of the $321M budget, or 70% of the OAP budget.

2018–19 OAP Budget Breakdown as per Roman Baber’s Report

For our estimates, we’ll split the $40M difference of the 2018–19 budget versus actual spend and say the annual legacy cost is $246,700,000 per year for a total of $493,400,000 over the 2 fiscal years. This is likely a generous estimate given the trend of children exiting the legacy program.

Based on the December 2019 OAP website, there were 3,983 children receiving childhood budgets. We do not have statistics on how many were $20k kids versus $5k kids, but we do know from the FOI request that of the 24,924 children on the waitlist, 31% were ages 5 and under, while the remaining 69% were ages 6–17. The average childhood budget across the waitlist demographic is $9,683.

For the ease of math we’ll use $10,000 as an average childhood budget for a total annual cost of $39,830,000. While it’s highly unlikely that there will be 100% usage of the budgets, our estimate will be based on the government’s liability using 100% usage and 100% renewals between June and December 2020 for a total 2 fiscal year cost of $79,660,000.

According to the December 2019 OAP waitlist numbers, there are 22,658 children waiting for service, and another 1,971 that registered into the OAP after April 1, 2019 for a total of 24,629 waitlist children eligible for a one-time payment. Using our average $10,000 payment, the total cost for this group is $246,290,000.

Legacy OAP: $493,400,000
Childhood Budgets with 1 renewal: $79,660,000
One-time payment waitlist: $246,290,000
TOTAL: $819,350,000
Remaining budget: $380,650,000

Note: The numbers above represent the best-case scenario assuming there is 100% usage of childhood budgets and one-time payments. Where recipients cannot spend their funding, they will owe the government the difference, meaning the “unspent budget” figures will likely grow. Without a FOI request, it may be impossible to figure out what the real spend will be as some renewals will take place in December 2020 with the reconciliation end date going into 2022! (Note to self, prepare an FOI request for future submission!)

I suspect for many the non-ABA costs as broken out by Roman Baber’s report may be a surprise. This is the big unknown expenditure in the 2019–20 and 2020–21 budgets.

Is the Ford Government still spending $24M on family supports?

What about the $27.9M in administrative costs? After all, there was a move to centralize administration from regional providers to the ministry, but because the legacy program is still running, it’s a big unknown what this cost is.

The $5.3M in diagnostic costs I suspect remains, if not increased.

The $20.2M in respite camps and other services really surprised me. Were these services the regional direct service providers had? No idea if this is still an expense.

The $16.7M in school supports is also an interesting one. I presume this is for the Connections for Students program?

Then we have new costs for hiring the army of Care Coordinators. We don’t know what these costs will be.

For this estimate we’ll assume the “other costs” expenditure remains the same as the 2018–19 budget of $94.3M for a total of $188.6M over the 2 fiscal years, but who really knows?

Remaining budget: $380,650,000
“Other Costs”: $188,600,000
Unspent budget: $192,050,000

Based on the math above, we’re left with $192M in unspent budget over fiscal years 2019–20 and 2020–21.

A successful program should not be measured by the amount of money spent, but rather the effectiveness of the program to deliver the services for the desired outcomes. As there’s no way to determine the effectiveness of the estimated $326M being spent on childhood budgets and one-time payments, this policy is a very poor way of spending Ontario’s tax dollars.

That said, it’s interesting to see that there’s an estimated $192M in unspent budget lingering. Yet another item to watch closely in the ongoing saga of the Ontario Autism Program as the debacle continues all the way until “sometime in 2021".

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

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