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‘Medical Home’ Approach Coordinates Services, Care for Autistic Kids

Behavioral and other medical specialists encouraged to work closely with each other and with children’s pediatricians

mary o'dowd
NJ Health Commissioner Mary O'Dowd

Among the many challenges faced by families of children with autism is how to coordinate behavioral treatment with other medical services.

That’s why the state Department of Health plans to fund studies of a new approach called “medical home,” in which an autistic child’s pediatrician works closely with behavioral and other specialists.

Primary-care practices and health insurers across the state are already adopting the “medical home” model as a way to better coordinate care.

But the state initiative, known as the Autism Health Needs Medical Home Pilot Projects, would fund studies of “medical home” models with a twist, targeting patients with autism, rather than a broad group of patients in a doctor’s practice.

The issue is particularly important in New Jersey, which has the highest rate of autism diagnoses in the country, with estimated one in 45 children with the disorder, with one diagnosis for every 27 boys and one diagnosis for every 133 girls.

The state is specifically looking to fund studies, to be conducted over a two-year period, focused on getting specialists to pool their efforts in order to treat “the whole person,” rather than limiting their role to the narrow concerns of their specialty.

“We hope that this will inform our future work, ensuring that we increase the effectiveness of our programs statewide,” said state Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd.

Projects that meet the goals set by the state will have the chance to receive an additional three years of funding through a grant program.

O’Dowd said the medical homes are part of a broader effort to translate the research on autism into “real service improvements” for those with autism.

Some of that research, funded by the federal and state governments, has taken place at the Montclair State University Autism Center for Excellence to conduct research and improve treatment for the disorder. Other important work has taken place at the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin.

The state has already received the applications for the medical home studies and is expected to notify the successful applicants on June 15, with an expected project start date of June 29. The projects that are chosen will receive up to $200,000 each year for two years; the exact amount of funding will depend on details of the winning applications.

O’Dowd said the true significance of the projects will lie in whether the medical home will serve as a model throughout the state, and potentially, the country.

“New Jersey is seen as a leader here. We have dedicated funding for research – we’re getting interest from national experts around the country that want to engage with New Jersey in what we’re doing,” O’Dowd said.

O’Dowd described the “medical home” projects during a Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee hearing on the state Department of Health budget.

The state’s early intervention program supports services for infants and toddlers up to age 3 who have developmental delays and disabilities including autism. Funding for the program is $154 million in the health department’s proposed budget, up $20 million from last year.

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