The Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Services Act, passed in 1969, requires regional centers to pay for medically necessary treatments, including ABA therapy. Last year, in order to shift the funding burden on regional centers, the Legislature passed SB 946 -- by Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) -- which required private insurers to pay for the service, saving money for the state.
The budget plan passed by the Legislature last week prohibits regional centers from paying the copayments or deductibles for ABA therapy, except in cases of demonstrable need. Ultimately, the provision means that people with private insurance will have to pay the deductible and copay.
State health officials said this is simply an instance of cost-cutting by the Legislature and governor.
All inquiries to state officials for this story were referred to the Department of Developmental Services, which responded with a short written statement. According to the DDS statement, if clients have trouble paying their copays, regional centers are allowed to help, depending on the clients' demonstrated financial need.
The DDS statement said, in part:
"The current budget trailer bill establishes uniform guidelines and authorizes regional centers to pay health insurance co-payments for services on behalf of lower income families or others who demonstrate hardship. Subsequent to enactment of the budget trailer bill, DDS will provide guidance to the regional centers regarding implementation of the authority to pay co-payments for low-income families or others who demonstrate hardship."
In the vernacular, this is called "means-testing."
That kind of means-testing has never been part of the Lanterman Act, according to Rick Rollens, a legislative adviser to ARCA, the Association of Regional Center Agencies.
"This is an historic shift in the Lanterman Act," Rollens said. "It's a major shift. It's the first time when a major service provision is now being means-tested. Historically, this has not been an issue."
The question of payment for ABA therapy in the regional centers is just one of several recent changes in autism coverage in California.
• The proposal to include ABA therapy as a benefit under the federally funded optional Medi-Cal expansion starting in 2014 was dropped.
• In their May budget proposal, state lawmakers allocated $50 million (or $100 million, if the federal matching money is considered) for one fiscal year of ABA therapy for Medi-Cal patients, which would have begun in July 2013. That provision was struck from the budget trailer bill in June.
• In 2009, the state eliminated funding for the Early Start program that affected about 17,000 developmentally delayed and at-risk children, including many kids who had early signs of autism, according to Jacobson.
• In September 2012, the state passed SB 946, requiring private insurers to pay for ABA treatment. The bill also provided for ABA therapy for children in the Healthy Families program. An estimated 10,000 of the 860,000 children in Healthy Families may have qualified for ABA therapy. But shortly after SB 946 passed, the state announced it was eliminating the Healthy Families program and moving those children to Medi-Cal managed care plans.
State health officials at the time assured lawmakers that there would be no gaps in continuity of care and that benefits would follow the children, but that has turned out not to be the case for an estimated 500 Healthy Families children who started to receive ABA therapy. Those children have been referred to the regional centers, and an estimated three-fourths of them are expected to fail to qualify for ABA therapy at the centers.