Special needs families fear cuts in new bill

PHOENIX - At age two, when most children were forming words and sentences, Liam Alcorn could only say a few words. His parents were worried, and soon got what seemed like devastating news.

Liam was diagnosed with autism, and would need intense therapy.

Four years later, the energetic 6-year-old is making remarkable progress, with a vocabulary on par with many children his age.

“He's just doing great, and if he wouldn't have started when he was 2 and a half, I don't know where he'd be right now,” said his mother Jennifer.

Liam is getting much of that therapy at Lauren’s Institute for Education, or LIFE, in Gilbert. The private facility serves about 400 families.

About 70 percent of them receive funding from AHCCCS, Arizona’s health insurance program.

Senate Bill 1519 would have a devastating impact here, and for thousands of other families of developmentally disabled children. The bill, sponsored by Republican Senator Andy Biggs of Gilbert, would effectively eliminate AHCCCS, reducing the number of insured Arizonans from 1.3 million to about 80,000. It would mean the state would opt out of federal Medicaid dollars, but also opt out of the regulations that come with it.

Although Biggs has said the 80,000 who are still covered under the plan would include the developmentally disabled, many at LIFE feel the children served here will fall through the cracks or wind up in state institutions where they won’t receive the specialized care they get at the Gilbert facility.

“We talk about budget cuts, and cuts that need to be made, why do we always come back to the people who need it the most?” said Margaret Travillion, founder and director at LIFE.

The bill recently passed out of committee and could come up for a vote in the House and Senate within the coming weeks. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have expressed reservations about the measure, and AHCCCS officials have warned it could close hospitals, especially in rural areas, sending thousands of doctors and medical professionals out of state.

The bill also stands in contrast to Governor Jan Brewer’s plan to eliminate about 245,000 people from AHCCCS roles, most of whom are childless adults.

While Biggs has labeled the current AHCCCS program unsustainable, the senator did not return our phone calls seeking an interview for this story.

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