Top court: B.C. doesn't have to fund autism treatment

Supreme Court ruled Friday that it's up to B.C. government to decide whether it will pay for treatment of autistic children.

Canada's highest court ruled Friday that it's up to the British Columbia government to decide whether to pay for costly early treatment for children with autism.

A group of B.C. families had argued the treatment was medically necessary. They said the province's refusal to pay for it violated equality rights guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But the Supreme Court, overturning two lower court rulings, said they failed to prove the province had discriminated against the children.

The court supported the province's position that it is not required under the Canada Health Act to pay for all medically required treatments.

The health-coverage plan is "a partial health plan and its purpose is not to meet all medical needs," according to Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin, who wrote the judgment.

"The Canada Health Act and the relevant British Columbia legislation do not promise that any Canadian will receive funding for all medically required treatment," the judgment says.

The B.C. plan covers core services, which are provided by designated health-care practitioners. Providers of an autism therapy called Applied Behavioural Analysis don't have that designation and their services couldn't be funded under the plan, said the court.

B.C. Attorney General Geoff Plant hailed the judgment, while extending his sympathy to parents with autistic children.

"What this judgment does is says the argument or claim that there was discrimination was not made out."

The ruling could set a precedent for similar cases in other provinces. Some provinces pay for therapy, while others do not.

Sabrina Freeman, with the group Families for Early Autism Treatment and mother of a 17-year-old autistic daughter, said she's outraged by the decision allowing provinces not to pay for a medical treatment that gives children a "decent" life.

"Why do we have a Supreme Court of Canada, if they cannot uphold the Constitution and they cannot protect the most vulnerable members of society from the vagaries of government?"

Parents won earlier decisions

The case was begun six years ago by four B.C. families who wanted the government to pay for a treatment known as Lovaas.

Developed by Norwegian doctor Ivar Lovaas in the 1980s, Applied Behavioural Analysis is an intensive, early intervention therapy that can cost up to $60,000 a year.

But in 2000, the B.C. Supreme Court declared the treatment a medical necessity and said the province had to pay for it under the Charter of Rights equality guarantees. That decision was upheld by the B.C. Court of Appeal in October 2002.

With autistic rates on the rise – it's estimated about 150,000 children have autism in Canada – the province argued it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year to pay for the treatments.

Autism typically appears within the first three years of life, and is four times more prevalent in boys than girls.