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The Pentagon announced Tuesday it is extending a pilot program that provides autism treatment to the children of service members.
Tricare Management Activity will extend the Enhanced Access to Autism Services demonstration program through March 2014, according to a news release.
The initiative allows beneficiaries — qualifying offspring of active-duty personnel — to receive 10 hours a week of applied behavioral analysis, or ABA, a treatment that helps autistic youngsters learn new skills and improve communications.
The program continuation is good news for the families of the estimated 20,000 autistic military children.
But advocates and some members of Congress believe Tricare needs to do more to serve this population.
In a congressional hearing March 8, Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., said the program ideally should provide at least 25 to 40 hours a week of treatment, in accordance with standard accepted practices.
But it definitely should be extended to include children of military retirees and medically retired personnel eligible for Tricare, he added.
"Imagine being wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan and forced to medically retire and your child loses his or her autism therapy. We have an obligation to provide the health care needs of our military families," Hinchey said.
Reps. Walter Jones, R-N.C., and John Larson, D-Conn., have introduced the Caring for Military Kids with Autism Act that would require the Pentagon to offer the coverage to children of those beneficiaries.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. Jonathan Woodson told the House Appropriations defense panel March 8 that the law would need to be changed for the Pentagon to widen its coverage.
He said ABA is considered an educational intervention rather than a medical therapy and cannot be offered under Tricare unless it's provided within the Extended Care Health Option program, offered to active-duty personnel for beneficiaries with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities or other conditions that cause them to be homebound.
"We currently provide about $36,000 a year in benefits to active-duty service members for dependents who have this condition," Woodson said. "One of the things we need to do in trying to craft the benefits for servicemen and women with children afflicted is to understand what needs to be addressed within the educational lane versus the health care lane," Woodson said.
He added that his office needed to become more involved with the "education folks" at the Pentagon to explore treatment options.