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October 1, 2013
Autism treatment project wins Foundation award

A Miami-based legal aid project that enabled more than 8,000 autistic children to gain coverage under Florida Medicaid for the only effective, evidence-based treatment for their condition is the recipient of the first Paul Doyle Children’s Advocacy Award.

The first-place “Children’s Autism Treatment Project” was a collaboration involving attorneys Miriam Harmatz and Besty Havens of the Miami office of Florida Legal Services Inc., Monica Vigues-Pitan of Legal Services of Greater Miami Inc., and pro bono attorney Neil Kodsi of the law firm of Alderman & Kodsi.

The attorneys filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of three autistic Miami children who had been denied coverage under Florida Medicaid for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy. While state law has required private insurers to cover ABA therapy for autistic children since 2008, Florida’s Medicaid program had continued to deny coverage by claiming, among other things, that the therapy was “experimental.”

On March 26, 2012, U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard issued a permanent injunction ordering the State of Florida to begin providing coverage of ABA for all children on Medicaid diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

Miriam Harmatz “The Medicaid population of children diagnosed with autism and/or autism spectrum disorder are deserving and will be given ABA treatment in the state of Florida,” said Lenard in an oral order from the bench. Following a four-day trial, she referred to the case as one of the most important she had ever heard.

Florida Legal Services and Legal Services of Greater Miami will share a $5,000 award from The Florida Bar Foundation. First and second runners-up will receive $3,000 and $2,000 respectively. The Florida Bar Foundation, which provides about 25 percent of the total funding for more than 30 legal services organizations covering all 67 Florida counties, made the projects of all the applicants for the award possible.

The Florida Institutional Legal Services Project of Florida Legal Services was second runner-up for “Deinstitutionalizing Florida’s Children,” a project that strives to keep children with mental and behavioral health issues in community-based care rather than juvenile or adult prisons, where they are sometimes housed in extended solitary confinement.

The Miami-based Americans for Immigrant Justice was second-runner-up for its Children’s Legal Project, which champions the rights of immigrant children in detention or foster care, or living in the community without a parent or guardian.

The award, which will be given biennially, honors Doyle, who as director of The Florida Bar Foundation’s Legal Assistance for the Poor Grant Programs initiated a Children’s Legal Services Grant Program in response to an identified need for representation of Florida’s low-income children. Doyle retired June 30 at the age of 77 after 22 years at the Foundation.

[Revised: 08-29-2014]