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Autism Cuts 'Left Us Hanging'

Bruce Rauner
Brian Mackey
NPR Illinois

  Officials with The Autism Program said they felt shock April 3, when they were told their state funding was canceled — effective immediately. The Good Friday notice also came to the chagrin of some legislators who said they thought autism programs would be spared from budget cuts.

“I regularly come into contact with 18 senators and representatives across the state,” said TAP lobbyist Jim Runyon. “They had been assured that the autism program was going to be held harmless through the remainder of (fiscal) ’15.”

One week before TAP received the notification, the General Assembly passed a supplemental appropriation meant to close the $1.6 billion shortfall for the state’s 2015 budget year, which ends June 30. Rep. Barbara Flynn Curie explained during debate that the legislation — which allowed for fund sweeps, 2.25 percent cuts at state agencies and lump sums to the governor to be used at his discretion — would “fill the gap so we can start discussions about the next fiscal year with a clean slate.” The Chicago Democrat and House Majority Leader added that “services to the mentally ill, the developmentally disabled and to autistic children” would not be included in the cuts.

But the letters from the Department of Human Services indicated otherwise. The move sparked controversy, with Democratic lawmakers saying they were “blindsided.” DHS Acting Secretary Greg Bassi appeared before the joint Senate Appropriations committee Tuesday and defended the agency’s actions. He explained that TAP wasn’t a “core” DHS service, and that families displaced by the shuttered TAP programs could join waiting lists for other state-funded services.

'It's not the only autism services we provide. It's one provider, and it's one program. ... We can't afford it this year.'

  “Yes, this is one of the line items that needed to be suspended in order get through this year. It’s not the only autism services we provide. It’s one provider, and it’s one program,” Bassi said. “We can’t afford it this year.”

According to its website, TAP is the largest network of its kind in the country, with 17 agencies and 19 centers statewide providing autism-related services to children, families, providers and others. The state was to give TAP a total of $4.3 million this fiscal year. The program didn’t get the final $1 million grant payout and Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed not funding it next year.

Leigh Grannan says her center lost 90 percent of its funding with the grant termination. She is director of the autism clinic at Springfield-based The Hope Institute. Grannan says many of the services her clinic provides — charging on a sliding scale to families — aren’t covered by Medicaid, and families can’t get them elsewhere in the state.

'The immediacy of this has kind of left us hanging.'

  “The immediacy of this has kind of left us hanging,” Grannan says. “We’re asking to not be zeroed out.”

The fallout from the cuts includes immediate layoffs at autism clinics and programs – with more expected to come – and parents weighing their options for service. Some downstate families say they may be forced to move out of Illinois to get assistance for their children.

“The entire network recognizes the financial straits that Illinois finds itself in at this time. We’ve been a part of the shared sacrifice in the past. We understand the need for that,” says Russell Bonanno, director of the TAP Network. “However, with the suspension of the grant — immediately — for this quarter, with the loss of all funding for fiscal year ’16, we actually become the sacrifice to help solve this crisis.”

On Friday, House Speaker Michael Madigan announced he would convene a special panel to "closely examine recent budget decisions" made by the governor.

“Governor Rauner has talked about cutting non-essential state spending for a number of months. In light of recent budget actions, and as we prepare to craft the next state budget, it’s important to have an in-depth discussion about what the governor believes is non-essential,” Madigan said in a statement. “While I believe that a budget solution should include a balance of spending cuts and additional revenue, as a state it’s also our duty to protect our most vulnerable citizens, including children with autism, persons with developmental disabilities and lower-income women in need of breast cancer screenings.”

Rhonda Gillespie is in the Public Affairs Reporting graduate program at University of Illinois Springfield and covers state government and politics for Illinois Issues magazine. She was previously managing editor of the Chicago Defender newspaper and a reporter for other Chicago and national news, university and trade outlets. She can be reached at (217) 206-6524.
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