NEW BRITAIN–Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Malloy on Thursday proposed creating a center for autism and developmental disabilities that would bring together resources for diagnosing, treating and coordinating care for people with autism spectrum disorders.

The center would be a private non-profit, but the state would play a key role in better coordinating the work of hospitals, agencies, support groups and other programs that provide services, Malloy said.

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Dan Malloy discusses his plan for an autism center (Arielle Levin Becker)

The idea would be to make it easier to access diagnostic services and outpatient and inpatient treatment, and to make it easier for parents to get through the often-complex process of getting their children services.

Speaking Thursday at the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain, Malloy said the proposal came from a desire to “get out in front, but late in the game” in addressing a developmental disorder that is estimated to affect an average of one in 110 children.

“It’s time to have a central depository of that information and that skill set within the state of Connecticut,” he said. “And it’s appropriate that government of the state of Connecticut be the convener of that undertaking. We’re not talking about a new state agency. We’re talking about the state being proactive as other states have been.”

Malloy said the center’s revenue would come from parents who self-pay for diagnostic services, school districts that use the services, private insurers that cover autism services – a new requirement for state-regulated insurance plans–and public insurance programs like HUSKY.

The center could save school districts money by allowing them to send students to one center for treatment, rather than to multiple facilities, and by ensuring that children are diagnosed early, which can lead to better outcomes, he said.

“I don’t like to mix dollars with something that I care so passionately about anyway, but it makes economic sense that we build a system of quick diagnosis, early intervention, a center of expertise and in those cases where children or adults are going to need to be given long-term care, that that care can be given in the state of Connecticut as opposed to these individuals being sent out of state to be further from their homes,” he said.

In a statement released by his campaign, Malloy used the proposal to contrast himself with his Republican opponent, Tom Foley. Foley last week proposed allowing some companies to offer “core needs” health insurance plans that are exempt from state mandates as a way to allow more employers to cover their workers.

“Tom clearly has very little understanding or appreciation for this issue, and its significance to Connecticut,” Malloy, who has relatives with autism, said in the statement.

Foley campaign spokeswoman Liz Osborn disputed Malloy’s comments.

“As usual Dannel Malloy is trying to obscure his own record by distorting the facts,” she said. “Tom Foley has produced a comprehensive plan that reduces health care costs and provides better quality care. Dan Malloy uses deliberate distortions to hide his long record of over-spending and high taxes. The voters of Connecticut know the difference and they are moving Tom’s way.”

Osborn declined to comment on Malloy’s proposal.

Independent Party gubernatorial candidate Tom Marsh called Malloy’s proposal a “noble proposition,” but said it “also raises concerns about how serious Mr. Malloy is when it comes to addressing the deficit and reducing the size of government.” Marsh also questioned how the proposal would be implemented and how the services would be paid for.

“I don’t question his sincerity, but the electorate does need to carefully distinguish the difference between campaign promises made prior to election and budgetary reality after election day,” he said.

Marsh noted that people leave the state for care for a variety of diseases and conditions, and said that does not mean that quality treatment does not exist in Connecticut.

“To make a campaign pledged to one specific group, particularly in the midst of an economic crisis is dangerous politics, rather than good policy,” he said.

Autism often falls through the cracks of medicine and mental health, said Sara Reed, executive director of the Autism Society of Connecticut. With no state agency dedicated to it, parents often end up cobbling together resources, trying to determine what state services their children are eligible for and purchasing what they can privately. For years, parents have banded together and created their own programs after finding none available that serve their children’s needs.

Some people with autism can get services through Department of Developmental Services if they also have intellectual disabilities or from the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services if they have mental health issues. But many have neither.

“They have no place to go,” Reed said.

The Department of Developmental Services has a small pilot program for people with autism who do not have mental retardation. Reed praised the program, but said it is not close to addressing the needs in the state.

At Malloy’s announcement Thursday, Sharon Saavedra, a New Britain resident whose daughter has autism, pointed out another challenge families face: Paying for the services.

Saavedra’s coverage is through a self-insured plan, which does not have to cover autism services because it is not subject to state regulation. About half the people in the state with health insurance are covered by self-insured plans.

“What do you do for the private payer, how are these services affordable for the private payer?” asked Saavedra, who serves as president of the New Britain board of education.

“Those are issues that have to be worked out,” Malloy said. “I can assure you that that is something on my mind.”

Reed said the idea of having a comprehensive, coordinated program to address autism was something the autism advocacy community would support.

“How that’s going to work, the devil’s in the details,” she said.

Reed said she was pleased that autism is being discussed in the campaign, and said all candidates should address it.

“We have a lot of people who are affected by autism who with the right amounts of supports and services can become productive members of our community and should be,” she said. “It’s been a classically underserved population. For many of them, it’s not a lot of services, it’s the right services.”

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Arielle Levin Becker covered health care for The Connecticut Mirror. She previously worked for The Hartford Courant, most recently as its health reporter, and has also covered small towns, courts and education in Connecticut and New Jersey. She was a finalist in 2009 for the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, a recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship and the third-place winner in 2013 for an in-depth piece on caregivers from the National Association of Health Journalists. She is a 2004 graduate of Yale University.

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