Autism ruling pleases parents

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

For now, Tina Vetter does not have to quit her job. She canceled the contractor she had hired to convert the family garage into a treatment center for her son, Murphy.

The 5-year-old, who is autistic and has Down syndrome, will continue attending Step By Step Academy of Worthington for the foreseeable future because of a federal judge's order preventing the state from changing funding regulations for autism treatment through the federal Medicaid program.

The new rules were supposed to take effect last month, but U.S. District Judge James L. Graham issued a temporary restraining order blocking the state from implementing them. Graham added a preliminary injunction, meaning the state cannot make further changes without an order from the court.

"I'm just glad that somebody actually listened to us," Vetter said. "Judge Graham absolutely understood. ... It almost feels like he put a blanket over our children to protect them."

In what may be the nation's first decision squarely on the subject of federal funding for autism treatment, Graham ruled that there is a "reasonable chance" that Ohio's new regulations violate Medicaid law. The matter will go to trial.

The Parents League for Effective Autism Services, a group of families of autistic children served by Step By Step and represented by Ohio Legal Rights Service, sued the Ohio Department of Mental Health and the Department of Job and Family Services over the proposed changes.

"Based on the ruling, the state will lean back on the old rules," said Scarlett Bouder, spokeswoman for the Department of Job and Family Services, which administers the Medicaid program. The cost of continuing to provide services, she said, won't be known until bills are submitted for reimbursement.

Bouder said about 50 families with children receiving services at Step By Step were affected by the change. State officials met with each family to outline the options: get services through the local school district, continue at Step by Step, or try a combination of the two.

The parents contend the new rules would prevent their children from obtaining necessary and effective treatment to which they are entitled under Medicaid.

State officials countered that changes are necessary to keep Ohio in compliance with federal Medicaid regulations. They also argue that Step By Step's rates, averaging about $60,000 per year for each child who attends full time, are out of line with other providers.

But Graham said the state doesn't consider that the services might not be available at all elsewhere, or not at the "same intensive level."