In The Politics of Autism, I discuss the day-to-day challenges facing autistic people and their families. As many posts have discussed, the challenges are especially great for military families.
Though TRICARE launched this ABA program in 2014, and has seen spending rise to $261 million annually, it’s still labeled a “demonstration” because the effectiveness of applied behavioral techniques for autism remains unproven, said Navy Capt. Edward Simmer, chief clinical officer of the TRICARE Health Plan.
“As of right now,” Simmer said, “Applied Behavioral Analysis does not meet TRICARE requirements for evidence-based coverage as part of the basic benefit. It still does not meet what we call the ‘hierarchy-of-evidence’ standard.”
First, ABA coverage coverage will continue through 2023 under a program extension approved earlier this year. Over that span TRICARE estimates that spending on ABA will rise to $430 million, the result of both medical inflation and a steady rise in number of children enrolled in the demonstration. Simmer estimates that only about half of all military children with autism currently receive ABA therapy.
A second notable development is that, at the direction of Congress, TRICARE is funding a $7 million research study, to run the length of the five-year extension. The purpose will be to learn how many ABA sessions are most effective.
Finally, Simmer said, TRICARE is broadening its autism program to encompass combinations of therapies, not solely ABA. The idea is to focus on “the whole child” while at the same time ensuring adequate support of parents whose involvement is seen as perhaps the most critical factor in effective therapy.