Ontario changes course on unpopular autism funding model, minister announces

After months of protests and outrage, the Ontario's Progressive Conservative government will pivot away from its controversial autism funding model and bring in a "needs-based program," Social Services Minister Todd Smith says.

'We didn't get the redesign right,' Minister Todd Smith admits

Social Services Minister Todd Smith announced a return to needs-based autism funding on Monday, telling reporters that his government's attempted revamp last winter hadn't worked. (CBC)

After months of protests and outrage, the province's Progressive Conservative government will pivot away from its controversial autism funding model, Social Services Minister Todd Smith said on Monday. 

In an announcement, Smith acknowledged that this February's autism revamp — which gave families a fixed amount of money determined by their income and their child's age — wasn't working. 

"We didn't get the redesign right the first time. I'm here to tell you that we will now," he said.

The plan, Smith said, is to move toward a "needs-based" program. 

Smith said he had expanded the Ontario autism advisory panel's mandate to give advice and make recommendations for a new needs-based program that will "serve as many children as possible" and that the panel will deliver recommendations by the end of the summer. 

Ontario Autism Coalition president Laura Kirby-McIntosh, who also serves on that autism panel, told CBC Radio's Metro Morning that the announcement will "bring some good news" to Ontario's autism community. 

Kirby-McIntosh said Monday that a needs-based plan, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, has always been the only option that makes sense.

"You wouldn't say to a bunch of diabetics, well, you all get the same amount of money for your insulin," she said.

Widespread protests 

The first iteration of the province's new autism funding plan pledged to clear a lengthy wait-list for treatment by providing families a fixed amount of money based on age and income. 

That plan outraged families and set off protests around Ontario, with some parents telling CBC News they were losing hope for their children's futures and preparing to sell their homes to pay for therapy.

The changes to autism funding in Ontario, announced in February, set off protests across the province. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Smith was pressed at Monday's announcement on whether he owed Ontario families an apology. 

"We are certainly sorry for the anxiety this caused," he responded. 

'Twice as much money'

The minister also fielded questions about whether his government's new direction is really just a repeat of the previous Liberal government's needs-based autism program. 

"First of all, there's twice as much money," said Smith, citing a late March decision to build a $600 million dollar program — up from the $321 million initially laid out in February. 

Smith said that since the new program will be built on the recommendations from the autism panel, "we don't actually have the new plan in place yet," adding that the new plan will also help more children. 

In a statement, Liberal MPP Michael Coteau appeared to disagree, calling the PC government's move a "retreat and reset."

"These changes will take months to implement, and the harms already done cannot simply be undone," Coteau wrote. He is a former minister of children and youth services. 

Though she welcomes the return to needs-based programming, Kirby-McIntosh also expressed a sense of déjà vu.

"Part of the reason for the intense reaction from the community is, we had this fight with the Liberals three years ago, when we fought back the age 5 cutoff. And the Conservatives were right there with us," she said.

"And then they got into government, and what did they do? They brought in a program that changed your funding amount when you have a birthday." 

There will be 'no gaps'

Smith promised that there will be no gaps in service between now and when the new Ontario Autism Program (OAP) is rolled out.

He said that children still receiving needs-based funding via the previous government's OAP would be given an extension of up to six months. 

Smith also said that children who are already receiving funding through the new government-created system, or who had been invited to apply for it, will also continue to receive that money.

In addition, "more families will be invited to apply" for the new government's fixed funding, he said. 

The various funding extensions, he said, are an interim solution and a "necessary step to getting this right."

With files from Metro Morning