After months of political controversy over covering Montana’s uninsured, it’s time to applaud a smaller change that will make a lifetime difference for some disabled Montana tots.

With neither fanfare nor partisan fighting, the 2015 Legislature authorized the state to add services for children with autism to the Medicaid program. Gov. Steve Bullock proposed that change to allow all Medicaid-eligible children to get what they need.

Life-changing lottery

No longer will Montana children have to win a lottery to get the services that teach them to talk, to understand language, to interact socially and to develop other skills that are so difficult for children with autism.

In 2009, Montana started a limited Medicaid program for such children, providing 55 slots statewide. The lucky kids who get those slots are eligible to receive intensive services for up to three years.

Independent researchers found that among children who completed the program:

65 percent were able to go into regular public school classrooms; they no longer needed special education.

80 percent were verbal, up from 42 percent at the start of services.

In 2013, the estimated lifetime cost of one individual with autism spectrum disorder was $3.2 million. Each child who was enabled to function well in a regular classroom represents millions of dollars in future savings with good prospects for living independently as adults. That’s the payoff from a Medicaid investment of $45,000 per year in preschool services.

With the assistance of a 30-member advisory committee of parents and providers, the state Department of Public Health and Human Services is putting together a children’s autism plan. Novelene Martin, Developmental Disabilities Bureau chief, hopes the plan will be submitted to federal Medicaid administrators by Jan. 1, and that they will OK the program early in 2016.

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Until then, the state will keep serving 55 children and twice that many will keep waiting.

90 kids waiting

As of last week, about 90 Montana children were on the waiting list, according to Martin. When a slot opens up, DPHHS draws a name from the waiting list in that region.

“The best chance for success is catching the kids early,” said Rep. Kathy Kelker, D-Billings, who has been working with and advocating for special needs kids for decades.

Getting the autism diagnosis as early as possible and getting the child into an appropriate educational program as soon as possible after diagnosis provides the best chance for avoiding a lifetime of disability.

Ideally, the autistic child will be getting specialized education by age 2, Kelker said.

Kelker recalled one case in which she was part of a team of volunteers who worked 30 hours a week with an autistic boy, starting when he was two years old. By the time he was old enough for kindergarten, he was ready for a regular classroom. Since then, this young man has become a terrific athlete, a good student and a community volunteer. On Sunday, he will graduate from high school.

Not every child with autism makes that much progress. But most can — if they get help as preschoolers.

Thank you to Bullock, all the lawmakers and children’s advocates who supported giving Montana kids their best chance for success.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.