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Deal on Defense Bill Drops Kids With Autism

December 13, 2013

WASHINGTON, DC (December 13, 2013) -- An 11th-hour agreement on a new Defense bill hammered out by the Senate and the House dropped dozens of proposed amendments, including a provision to improve TRICARE coverage for ABA treatment for military dependents with developmental disabilities, including autism.

Approved by the House last spring, the amendment to the FY14 National Defense Appropriations Act (NDAA) enjoyed bipartisan support in the Senate but was one of dozens that never came up for a vote as Congress raced to meet a self-imposed Friday deadline to reach agreement on a final bill. As a result, the effort to improve TRICARE coverage for applied behavior analysis (ABA) will have to start over from the beginning in Congress next year, the third time since 2012.

"I am disappointed that this provision was not included in the NDAA and I will continue the fight in Congress to help ensure that our military families have access to the critical services, care and support they desperately need and deserve,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who cosponored the Senate amendment with Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA). "Our service members should be focused on their jobs, but instead too many are worried that their children are being denied essential services." 

The Senate TRICARE amendment picked up 12 cosponsors, including Republican Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Roy Blunt of Missouri. The amendment that passed the House in June was sponsored by Reps. John Larson (D-CT) and Tom Rooney (R-FL).

"We are frustrated and saddened for the thousands of military families still waiting for the medically necessary ABA treatment their kids need," said Karen Driscoll, Autism Speaks associate director of federal government relations and military affairs. "But we will be back next year and for as long as it takes until military families get the medical care they have earned and deserve."

A similar amendment was approved by both houses of Congress in 2012, but in conference committee was reduced to a one-year pilot program that has been problematic and is soon to expire. TRICARE was months late rolling out the pilot plan this year and it raised a storm of protest from military families over its restrictive provisions. The controversy led Murray and Gillibrand to demand answers from TRICARE Director Dr. Jonathan Woodson.

The outcry prompted TRICARE to back off some of the changes and restore services to dependents receiving ABA under the Basic and ECHO programs, but families remain uncertain about the future of their benefits.

According to Driscoll, “TRICARE now delivers ABA services under three different programs, and not one of these programs is permanent.  Families need assurances of continued health care services.  Robust action is needed to ensure final ABA policies provide for timely access to care, meet the needs of beneficiaries, and align with best practices.”

In October, Autism Speaks kept up the pressure on the Department of Defense by submitting a letter urging major overhaul of pediatric services and coverage of ABA care. Similar letters were submitted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Children's Hospital Association, Easter Seals, National Military Families Association, Military Officers Association of America, and other advocacy groups to demand better pediatric care for military dependents.

The newly-agreed to NDAA passed the House on Thursday night and will go to the Senate next week.