Nevada governor seeks to expand autism care program

Plans seeking more money for education and wholesale changes to the tax code are certain to spark debate in Nevada this session, but they weren’t the only dramatic shifts Gov. Brian Sandoval called for in his State of the State address.

The Republican governor also announced a proposal to pump tens of millions into a program that lawmakers recently considered cutting altogether: child autism support.

Advocates acknowledge that funding increases won’t fix every problem, but they say Sandoval’s plan could help hundreds of Nevada children with autism spectrum disorders.

No opposition has emerged. But the plan calls for adding $73 million from state and federal sources to a program that previously had a $10 million allocation, an increase that comes as part of a $7.3 billion two-year budget proposal that has drawn criticism from fiscal conservatives. Several state senators and assembly members have said they would vote against Sandoval’s budget plan because it includes tax increases.

All of the allocated money would go to the Autism Treatment Assistance Program, which gives parents a monthly stipend to help pay for treatment and therapy. The program accepts patients up to the age of 19, and uses a tiered structure ranging from roughly $500 to $2,000 a month based on income levels and severity.

These funds only cover a portion of costs, with parents expected to pick up the rest of the bill. Therapy costs for a child with autism can run between $30,000 and $50,000 a year, program administrator Julie Kotchevar said.

The proposed funding increases would expand coverage from around 570 young people to about 830. A Medicaid expansion is expected to cover about 1,900 others starting in 2016.

Health department officials say the boost would still leave nearly 1,000 children who need assistance on a wait list.

The program helps young people with autism spectrum neurological disorders, including Asperger’s syndrome. The conditions are characterized by learning problems, social difficulties and repetitive behaviors or movements.

Depending on the severity of the case, early behavioral treatment can help, University of Nevada, Reno behavioral analyst Patrick Ghezzi said. “You can turn the corner on this,” he said. “This is not a lifelong disability.”

For parents of children with autism, a funding increase would be a welcome change.

Troy Gardner, who founded the Nevada Autism Community Foundation and has a 13-year-old son with Asperger’s, hopes the state puts more money into therapy programs. He said his son has benefited from treatment since being diagnosed eight years ago and that could give hope to other families.

“With the right training, these kids can be productive members of society,” he said. “The problem is that training is very expensive.”


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