If the Legislature doesn’t step up to protect Early Childhood Intervention (ECI), the community groups that provide ECI services and the children and families who rely on these services, are in trouble.
That’s the bottom line in four different news stories that have popped up around the state this month. The articles about the state’s ECI program, which serves children under age three with disabilities and developmental delays, follow months of controversy over proposed state cuts to Medicaid reimbursement rates for children’s therapies. The state has indicated the cuts will be implemented in some form later this year.
The Texas Tribune ran an in-depth article about how the combination of reimbursement rate cuts and inadequate ECI funding in the state budget would hamper ECI providers like Any Baby Can, MHMR Tarrant County, and Texas Panhandle Centers. The story highlights a seven-month-old named Sara, who has had trouble swallowing her food and putting on weight, one of about 50,000 Texas kids who receive life-changing help from ECI.
The Amarillo Globe-News spoke to three different ECI organizations in the Texas Panhandle and South Plains region. Each warned that the state cuts would undermine the services they provide to children in need. The article explains how the Texas Panhandle Centers, and ECI Director Laci Phillips, provide those services:
Her program employs approximately seven therapists and 12 caseworkers who provide in-home therapy services that are extremely important in aiding and correcting childhood development. They also work with preschool programs in the two counties. They teach families how to address problems with a child’s gross motor skills, fine motor skills and speech delays.
"If you don’t address these things early on they become bigger problems.” Phillips said. "They teach the family how to help the child with what’s available in the home. If all they have is a piece of paper the case worker will crumple it up into a ball and show them how they can use that with the child to improve motor skills.”
The Plainview Daily Herald spoke to Brenda Jones, the ECI Director at the Central Plains Center, about the threat that state cuts pose to their services. She noted that ECI has a track record of proven success in part because it focuses on the developmentally critical years between birth and age three:
That brief period is the perfect time window to add support as children learn the most in their first three years of life.
"Reports have shown that the first three years of a child's life are the most crucial because neurons and pathways in the brain are still being molded, and we can affect the biggest change in that child's life," Jones said.
With therapy, Jones' staff can ready a child prior to entering school.
"We don't want any student to start school already behind," Jones said.
The article goes to discuss the ECI’s effectiveness:
Data shows that nearly half of children in the program or in similar programs in other states who were at risk of needing costly special education services did not need those services when they arrived at kindergarten. More than 75 percent of participating Texas children have shown gains in social-emotional skills and use of age-appropriate skills.
Finally, the media attention continued on High Plains Public Radio, which recently reported on the harmful impact of the cuts to local ECI programs and families.
As the threat to these services becomes clearer, Texas kids need state leaders to step up and support ECI. One key action state policymakers can take is to ensure that the pediatric therapy rate cuts, if enacted, do not reduce ECI access or merely shift the financial burden to ECI’s community partners which are already under heavy fiscal strain. Are we really going to eke out additional Medicaid savings at the expense of babies and toddlers with disabilities and delays?
There is still time for Texas leaders to ensure all eligible kids access a robust ECI system so they can learn how to eat, walk, be ready for school, or achieve their own personal developmental goals.