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Agency Backs Off Cuts to Child-Intervention Program

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The state Department of Health on Friday backed off a plan to cut millions of dollars from an early-intervention program that serves babies and toddlers with developmental disabilities and delays.

The department last week notified the state's 15 Early Steps offices that $4.2 million would be cut from the program's budget effective immediately -- in the middle of the fiscal year. A department official told the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday that the cuts had originated in Washington.

"The grant for the Early Steps was reduced by over $3 million," said department budget official Michele Tallent. "So therefore, there was a reduction in the federal budget authority that was needed."

Such a move would have been "devastating," said Rob Porcaro, chief operating officer of Easter Seals Florida. He said individual Early Steps offices would have lost as much as $800,000 "that they'd have to account for" by June 30, which in turn would have caused children to lose services and program offices to lay off staff.

Lawmakers last week raised questions about the reasons for the cuts and whether the federal government was responsible.

"We were told that the cuts were due to an over-commitment of provider payments from the new statewide (third-party administrator) claims processing system," Porcaro told The News Service of Florida.

But after Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Chairman Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, requested a meeting on the matter, Department of Health spokeswoman Tiffany Cowie on Friday issued a statement:

"The Florida Department of Health is in the process of following up with (Garcia's) committee. We are committed to working with the Legislature to ensure there are no contract adjustments for this current fiscal year, which means no interruption in services for Florida children.”

Experts say the younger the age at which children are diagnosed, the greater the chances of mitigating the effects of a developmental disabilities or delays.

"Everyone across the state wants to make sure these children have services," Garcia said. "If we can get them into these services and treat them early on, the chances are that they'll need less services as adults."

But Early Steps officials say they're worried about the program's future funding.

Scott Supports More Money for Disability Services

Gov. Rick Scott on Friday proposed spending an additional $8 million next year to provide services to developmentally disabled people who have critical needs.

The increased funding would continue an effort to remove people with critical needs from a waiting list for services at the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.

An agency presentation last week to the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee indicated that the money could serve about 400 people with developmental disabilities.

Scott also announced he will seek a $5 million increase for a new state program known as "personal learning scholarship accounts." Those accounts are designed to help parents of children with disabilities pay for educational services.

Scott's proposal would increase total funding for the program to $23.4 million, according to his office.

"These life changing investments will create more opportunities for all Floridians to get a great education and choose the right course of learning that best meets their needs,'' Scott said in a prepared statement. "Every individual should have the opportunity to get a great job and education regardless of the challenges they may face, and that is why we are making this funding a priority."

Scott is expected to release a budget proposal this week for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Lawmakers will consider that proposal as they draw up a final spending plan during the spring legislative session.

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