Premier Doug Ford says his government needs to determine the real number of children waiting for autism therapy supports after an internal review by one of his own MPPs found the Progressive Conservatives knowingly inflated the size of the waitlist.
In an interview with a Toronto radio station on Tuesday, Mr. Ford offered conflicting statements about the size of the waitlist and whether he accepted that previous estimates were inaccurate.
At one point, he said that the 23,000 number indicating how many children were waiting for therapy came from bureaucrats at Queen’s Park and organizations, including Autism Ontario, but then backed away from the figure. Later, his office sent a statement to The Globe and Mail reiterating that 23,000 children were waiting for services.
“I’m not going to quantify any single number. Right off the top of my head, I can’t tell you the exact number,” Mr. Ford told Global News Radio 640 Toronto. “There seems to be numbers flying all over the place from the experts to other organizations. So we need to get a handle on the exact count.”
The 23,000 figure is significant because it was used by the government to justify its changes to the autism program, which would have abruptly cut funding for thousands of children with complex needs who were receiving government-funded therapy.
An internal review of how the government handled the file by Toronto-area MPP Roman Baber, obtained last week by The Globe through an anonymous source, said that a repeated assertion by the government that 23,000 children were on a list waiting for services was “unverified and is likely inaccurate.” Mr. Baber wrote that so-called waitlist was really a combination of several lists that the ministry compiled from regional providers of autism services.
“It is incorrect to say that 23,000 kids are languishing without treatment,” he wrote, adding that families have registered their children with more than one service provider or could be back on the waiting list after receiving a block of therapy.
Mr. Baber declined to comment on Tuesday.
Asked about Mr. Ford’s comments that Autism Ontario helped the government arrive at its waitlist figures, spokeswoman Katharine Buchan said that was inaccurate.
“Our parent volunteers provide support to families waiting for services in their local areas. While this allows us to play a role in helping to inform the work being done during this provincial transition period, we do not collect information regarding waitlists for children waiting for behavior supports or intervention through the Ontario Autism Program and did not play a role in helping to inform the waitlist numbers that have been announced,” she said in an e-mail statement.
Laura Kirby-McIntosh, president of the Ontario Autism Coalition, said she’s not sure how the government arrived at the 23,000 waitlist figure.
“The Premier is well aware that the number of 23,000 was a crucial part of government talking points. If they were not sure about that number then they should have done their due diligence instead of using that number to fabricate a crisis,” she said on Tuesday.
Mr. Baber’s report, dated June 13, is addressed to Mr. Ford and Dean French, Mr. Ford’s former chief of staff, who recently resigned. The report says that Mr. Ford and Mr. French requested in April that Mr. Baber review the autism program.
Mr. Ford said in the radio interview that Mr. Baber wrote a “pretty good report."
The detailed analysis, which included sweeping suggestions for changes on how to move forward, was shared last week with an advisory panel announced by the government in May to make recommendations on a needs-based funding model.
In February, the government announced changes to the autism program that would provide families with a set amount of funding based on the age of children and the household income. Lisa MacLeod, the former minister of community and social services, said it would clear a backlog of 23,000 children waiting for supports.
The move, however, was met with outrage from families whose funding for autism services would be cut. They held protest rallies at the offices of Progressive Conservative MPPs and packed the public galleries at Queen’s Park.
The government backed away from some of the changes a month later. It promised to study how the program could provide additional support for families based on needs and doubled the funding available to all families to $600-million a year.
Ms. MacLeod was demoted in a cabinet shuffle last month to the ministry of tourism, culture and sport.
Todd Smith, formerly minister of economic development, has taken over the portfolio for children, community and social services. He declined to comment on Tuesday.