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Bill Appropriates Grant Funds For Autism Center

The state is dedicating $400,000 in one-time grant funds for autism facilities to get off the ground in Montana, a move advocates said would help serve a community of people who have had to seek treatment in other states.

Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signed House Bill 952, sponsored by Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell, into law this month. The bill originally provided $200,000 in one-time only funds, but was increased after going through Senate Finance and Claims.

Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, carried the bill in the Senate after the revenue increased and spoke on the floor about a distant relative who had a son with severe autism who had grown to be large and “impossible to handle.” He said the boy’s mother went to the hospital “bruised up,” because there was no place else to go and said she needed to leave him there.

“She just had reached the limit,” he said.

Cuffe said he worked with the family, and eventually they were able to send the boy to a facility in Mississippi where he was able to access treatment.

However, when Medicaid beneficiaries go out of state to seek treatment, the funds follow them to the out-of-state facility, Medicaid Chief Financial Manager Gene Hermanson confirmed during the Senate Finance and Claims hearing.

Sprunger said the state is sending from $100,000 to $160,000 a year to other facilities.

“This is funding for these individuals that is already identified and earmarked if they are qualifying for a program such as the one that we would be looking to build,” Sprunger said in the Senate hearing.

Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, proposed a similar bill that died earlier in the session. During the hearing for Morigeau’s bill, Rich Janssen, father to a 28 year-old son with autism named Jake, testified he worried about what would happen to Jake when he passes away.

“We’ve replaced many doors, many toilets, fixed walls, spent thousands of dollars to keep our home safe and our life calm,” he said. “My wife has PTSD from past conflicts with our son because he can’t effectively communicate.”

Janssen was advocating to keep Jake in a home in Montana so he could be close to family, instead of sending him to an out-of-state facility. He testified he purchased land to build a facility in Montana and needed funds to help get it off the ground.

During a hearing in Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs for Sprunger’s bill later in the session, Morigeau said that Janssen couldn’t make it to testify as his son had passed away the week prior.

“He’s not done with this effort,” Morigeau said, speaking from conversations he had with Janssen.

To be eligible for the funds, a nonprofit or government organization would need to provide a dollar-for-dollar match from public or private sources as well as provide the Department of Public Health and Human Services plans for the construction of an autism facility in Montana.

The deadline for the state funds to transfer to DPHHS is Aug. 1.

Sen. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, thanked Cuffe for his work with the family who was in crisis, saying they were his own constituents but then as a freshman legislator he was overwhelmed.

He said this bill was a step forward.

“We don’t have to ship these kids to Mississippi to get the treatment that we can provide here,” Curdy said.

Cuffe said on the Senate floor that he was proud of the bill.

“I’ll tell you what, today as we approach the end of it, I feel better about this than anything else I’ve done,” Cuffe said.

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