Therapists brace for lower rates, hoping lawmakers reverse them

3-year-old Jared and his child therapist Genelle Mills (foreground). (KXAN Photo/Phil Prazan)
3-year-old Jared and his child therapist Genelle Mills (foreground). (KXAN Photo/Phil Prazan)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – More than a year after they were originally ordered, the state will pay lower rates for some therapy for disabled children. After a legal fight, the state of Texas will pay $350 million less for services for disabled and foster children.

New rates originally were planned for Oct. 1, 2015, but a lawsuit delayed the issue until a judge through it out.

Child occupational and speech therapists just got official word, the state will cut their reimbursement rates, starting Dec. 15.

Three-year-old Jared moves across the room, picks up a toy block and puts it into a bucket. He was born with autism and Genelle Mills, his therapist through Any Baby Can, knows that small action is a big deal.

“Everything we do is putting and taking out. Whether it’s laundry, getting dressed, brushing out teeth,” said Mills. Texas taxpayers help pay for this therapy. Jared’s mother, Anita Estrada, is staying in the emergency shelter at the Salvation Army.

She says before therapy he didn’t express basic emotions. “He wasn’t talking. He wasn’t feeding himself… He wasn’t doing anything. He would just walk around like a security guard all day,” said Estrada.

Now, he definitely shares his emotions as he screams when he’s unhappy and laughs when he’s happy. John Branham, communication director from Any Baby Can, cites a United Way study saying for every state dollar spent at this stage, it saves 17 tax dollars fixing problems that come up later in life. He says these programs help children with special needs become school ready.

“People out in the community need to be aware of this because this could happen to their child and they could find themselves needing these therapies that are being put into jeopardy,” said Branham.

Lawmakers say they’re closely watching what will happen and they expect providers to accept the lower rates and continue to serve these children. But many are skeptical that children like Jared and his family will get the same level of care.

A Texas Health and Human Services Commission spokeswoman says the state is cautiously moving forward with new rates.

Speaker of the Texas House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said “maybe we made a mistake” in a recent interview. He said the House will take up replacing the money lost this January.

We reached out to the leader of the Texas Senate, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, to see if he share’s Straus’ views. His office did not respond to our request for comment.

Lawmakers lowered therapy rates after a Texas A&M report commissioned by the state. It showed Texans paid much more for these services than other states. After the legislature approved the lower rates a group of for-profit therapy providers sued. They lost in court over the summer and the state went forward with the lowered rates.

“The most important job we have is making sure kids have the services they need and that we are responsible with taxpayer dollars. We will monitor the reduction of rates to ensure access to care is not impacted and that Texans around the state receive the much-needed therapies required to improve their lives,” Carrie Williams wrote in a statement.

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