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Province drops intensive autism program for kids

VICTORIA - The B.C. Children's Ministry is dropping funding for what it calls a Cadillac treatment program for 70 autistic children in order to give more money to more than 800 kids who receive autism funding from the government.

Children's Minister Mary Polak said Wednesday her ministry will offer more autism treatment money to more children rather than fund an intensive program that costs $70,000 per child.

She said the government will drop its $5 million Early Intensive Behavioural Intervention program next January, and in April will increase to $22,000 a year from $20,000 the amount of money it provides to families with autistic children under six.

Autism funding has been a matter of intense legal and emotional debate in British Columbia.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2004 that the government did not have to pay for the cost of an early intervention autism treatment known as Lovaas therapy. The ruling overturned two lower court rulings that said the government's refusal to pay the costs was discriminatory.

Polak said the creation of the B.C. intensive autism therapy program was partly in response to the court battle, but the time has come to bring more equality to the way the province funds autism treatment.

"It was a matter of us looking at what is the best way to serve the most kids and give them the most funding we can," said Polak. "The reality is we need to look at the ability we have to serve as many children around the province as possible."

The Autism Society of British Columbia says cutting the intensive autism program hurts children, even if the government says it is using the extra money to help other children.

Michael Lewis, president of the society, said the extra $2,000 a year will barely cover extra money families will have to pay next year to cover the cost of the new harmonized sales tax, which will add seven per cent onto treatment costs.

Autism services currently only include the five-per-cent federal Goods and Services Tax, but are free of the seven-per-cent B.C. provincial sales tax. The proposed 12-per-cent B.C. HST is set to take effect next July.

Lewis said he is not convinced by Polak's argument that early intensive program is being dropped because it was not producing enough solid results for the money.

"That potentially has a staggering impact on these children," he said. "If they are suggesting a 10-hour-a-week program is the same as a 40-hour-a-week program, I would certainly like to see that peer-reviewed data that suggests that."

Polak said the ministry found little improvement between children in the intensive program than those in regular autism treatment programs.

"We have to look at the outcomes and when it comes to what was occurring, . . . we were not seeing any appreciable improvements in the outcomes for those kids," she said. Polak said the seven B.C. locations providing the intensive autism therapy will continue to work with children, but families will be expected to pay for the treatment.

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