Pentagon under fire for proposed cuts to autism care

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The Pentagon is under fire on Capitol Hill for a plan that critics say could leave thousands of military families whose children suffer from autism without access to the healthcare coverage they need.

For the second time in as many years, the Department of Defense is proposing to slash payments to healthcare professionals who work with autistic children by as much as 15 percent. 

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This would make it difficult for military families to find help for autistic children, critics say.

The proposal has outraged dozens of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, who are urging the Pentagon to abandon the cuts.

“Are you at all concerned about the impact changing rates will have on children’s access to [autism] therapy?” Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandMoving beyond minimal: Fighting for paid family and medical leave McAuliffe: I wouldn't want a 'caretaker' in Kaine's Senate seat Tim Kaine backs call to boost funding for Israeli missile defense MORE (D-N.Y.) asked a top Pentagon official during a recent hearing. 

Gillibrand suggested the cuts could "derail" autism coverage for military children.But the Pentagon denied the claims that military families would lose autism coverage.

"The Department [of Defense] doesn't anticipate anyone will lose access to care," a Pentagon spokesperson told The Hill. "The idea is no one will lose coverage."

The Pentagon originally floated the idea of slashing autism payments in half in 2014, but backed down from the plan shortly after The Hill wrote about the cuts. 

At the time, a survey of healthcare professionals conducted by Megan Miller of Navigation Behavioral Consulting revealed 95 percent planned to reduce the autism services they offer military families, while 22 percent would have stopped working with these children altogether due to the massive pay cuts.

This would have led to more than 1,100 autistic children losing coverage, according to the survey.

The Pentagon reignited the debate over autism coverage for some 26,000 military children — proposing cuts that would be capped at 15 percent a year — in a December meeting with healthcare providers.

Republicans and Democrats both lashed out at the Pentagon. 

In a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter sent this week, Gillibrand, along with Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Jerry MoranJerry MoranMeet the rising GOP star who already enrages the left GOP warming up to Cuba travel Senate clears FAA authorization bill MORE (R-Kan.), and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHouse oversight asks for private meeting with EpiPen maker Competition is the cure for EpiPen’s price hike Grassley presses EpiPen maker on 400 percent price increase MORE (D-Minn.) expressed “great concern.” 

The senators warned the proposed cuts would bring the military’s compensation for healthcare professionals who work with autistic children to 35 percent below the national average.

The military currently pays autism professionals a wage of $125 an hour. If the cuts go into effect at the end of the month, that wage would be lowered, and critics say it would result in children losing treatment.

As many as 1,500 military children with autism could lose coverage under the proposed cuts, according to a new Navigation Behavioral Consulting survey.

In a second letter to Carter, a group of 40 lawmakers in the House expressed concern over autism professionals who are already leaving the military’s healthcare system, "given the disparity between the national average reimbursement rate” and what the Pentagon pays.

“Ironically, this 15 percent reduction in reimbursement rates occurs at a time when public and private [insurers] are increasing autism coverage,” the lawmakers wrote, warning this could “further draw resources away from military families.”

The Pentagon commissioned a study from the RAND Corporation that confirmed as much, suggesting that the military’s rate for autism professionals “is not consistent with reimbursement rates from the commercial and public insurers,” which “might lead providers either to leave” the military system or prioritize children from other insurers.