Budget Crisis Leaves Therapists Without Jobs, Autistic Kids Without Treatment

Tardy checks forcing therapists to leave government programs

By Steve Bryant
|  Tuesday, Dec 29, 2009  |  Updated 9:48 AM CDT
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The Top 10 Illinois Stories of 2009

Maria Forsell

Maria Forsell's son, Grayson, and her daughter, Lily, playing at home. Grayson was diagnosed with autism when he was 11 months old.

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In 2009, Maria Forsell's life was about to get more complicated.

Her husband, downsized out of a manufacturing job, was unemployed. Her job as an administrative assistant in Plainfield earned barely enough to cover expenses. And her son, Grayson -- a precocious blonde-haired toddler only two years old -- was diagnosed with autism.

So Maria turned to the state for help. And that's when she found out the state was broke, too.

"Illinois isn't paying its therapists," Maria said, describing how Early Intervention, the Illinois state agency that provides care to families with autistic children ages 1-3, is weeks and sometimes months behind in paying thousands of therapists who care for special needs children.

"The therapists don't get their checks, so they leave to go work another job at, I don't know, McDonald's or something where they can get a steady paycheck," Maria said. "And what happens to my son then?"

Maria's question may not be rhetorical for long.

Early Intervention is, by the agency's own account, up to 12 weeks behind on paying providers. As the state falls behind, therapists say they're being forced to find alternative employment. And as therapists leave the system, families like Maria's worry that their children will be stranded in developmental limbo.

"If we stop now he'll fall greatly behind," Maria says. "But if there's no money, there's no money."

There's no money.

For the uninitiated, Early Intervention works like this: when a physician examines a toddler and notices developmental lag -- little eye contact, lactose intolerance, jerky limb movements, etc -- he/she refers the family to a Child and Family Services (CFC) office. CFC then recommends occupational and speech therapists, and often a social worker to assist the family.

The therapists and social workers bill the insurance companies and the state for their services. The insurance companies pay. But starting around January 2008, the state fell behind.

"Funding was never an issue when I started," says Tammy Johnson, a social worker who owns her own private practice in Plainfield, and who's worked with Early Intervention since 2003. Part of her job is to recommend therapists to families. "But now, at one point, it was 16 checks I was waiting for. That's when I started to see a lot of providers leave."

Early Intervention acknowledged the problem in its most recent update to care providers.

"DHS/Early Intervention, like most other State Agencies, is experiencing severe delays in payments from the State of Illinois," the update reads. The update goes on to explain that providers are not eligible for expedited payments or unemployment benefits, nor will they receive interest on their late checks.

Each of them simply has to wait.

A spokesperson says the office doesn't keep annual counts of active providers, so they say there's no way to know if the budget crisis is affecting the number of providers enrolled in the program.

The program currently counts 6,533 providers with active credentials, but the office has no way of telling whether those providers are actively working.

To help fight for their back pay, providers and their supporters have started a Facebook group called Illinois Early Intervention Providers Need to Get Paid. The group boasts 1,861 members and is organizing for a January 13th rally in Springfield.

Meanwhile, the therapists still working are having a tough time of it. At least one Plainfield therapist, who asked not to be identified by name, reported they've begun concentrating on older children who are covered by private insurance. Unlike government programs, private insurers continue to pay in a timely manner.

As for those who stay in the system, they continue to have a rough time.

"Slowly but surely my savings is dwindling," says Tammy. "If they don't make these payments, I don't have a job."

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