Legislators hear ideas to improve autism services

BISMARCK— North Dakota lawmakers heard Wednesday more than $7 million worth of recommendations to improve autism spectrum disorder services in the state.

The state’s Autism Spectrum Disorder Task Force prepared several suggestions for lawmakers to consider after being directed to come up with a list of policy recommendations and costs.

The most important priority for the task force is hiring a state autism coordinator and assistant, said JoAnne Hoesel, the task force’s chairwoman.

“We’ve talked over the past months with you about the fragmentation that is in place and that parents and families often don’t know where to go (for help),” Hoesel told lawmakers. “So, we see this coordinator and assistant as being the source to turn that around.”

The coordinator would serve as a one-stop shop to provide information, Hoesel said. The coordinator would also offer regional meetings and help form regional coalitions, as well as plan an annual conference.

The job would also involve developing a state outreach plan, leading efforts to establish standards for professional development and contracting for a state autism spectrum disorder website. Another task would be developing protocol to use after autism screenings.

“We’re told by physicians that one of the main reasons that screening is not done is that they don’t know what to do after that and who to refer people to if there is a positive screen,” Hoesel said.

The estimated cost for the coordinator, assistant and operating funds is $494,135 for a two-year period, she said.

The second-highest priority for the task force is creating a comprehensive training fund, Hoesel said. This includes providing online early identification training for physicians and regional training for day care providers, preschool programs, public health centers, schools and communities. Nearly $160,000 to support the fund is suggested.

Other recommendations include:

-Mandating private insurance coverage. This was the biggest ticket item, with an estimated cost of $5.8 million for a biennium for those covered by the Public Employees Retirement System. The cost was based on a fiscal note prepared for the 2011 Legislature.

Children with autism have significant medical and therapy needs but are often unable to obtain the care they require, Hoesel said.

-Expanding and refocusing the autism spectrum disorder Medicaid waiver. The recommendation includes offering waiver coverage from age 3 through life. The waiver is now limited to ages birth to 5.

Rep. Al Wieland, R-West Fargo, asked how many people the proposed expansion would cover. Hoesel said it’s difficult to know how many people need services since the state doesn’t have a tracking system.

-Creating a tracking system, or an autism spectrum disorder registry. The estimated cost is $200,646. The goal is to gain better information on North Dakota’s rate of autism spectrum disorder to assist in planning, Hoesel said.

-Increasing the number of behavioral analysts in the state by providing funding for 16 people to complete an online board certified behavioral analyst program. The estimated cost is nearly $200,000.

The list of recommendations was a good start in moving forward, said Wieland, chairman of the interim Human Services Committee. Not all of the recommendations may get approval but they help give legislators direction, he said.

The committee will continue to discuss its study of autism spectrum disorder in the coming months as it prepares for the 2013 Legislature.

View the full list of recommendations here.