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Alumni Clinch Victory for Autistic Children

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Two Miami Law graduates, Betsy Havens, JD '11, and Monica Vigues-Pitan, JD '03, last week helped autistic children win a major courtroom victory. In a ruling on March 26, U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard ordered the State of Florida to immediately begin providing coverage for a psychological program called applied behavioral analysis, designed to improve the behavior, language and cognitive development of autistic children.

Judge Lenard referred to the matter as "one of the most important cases I have ever heard." It was brought by Florida Legal Services, where both Havens and Vigues-Pitan are attorneys, on behalf of three autistic Miami children.

The state already requires commercial carriers to provide the applied behavioral analysis therapy – often known by its acronym, ABA – to Floridians with private insurance, which means that children from poor families are denied services that more affluent children can afford. In her order, Judge Lenard described as "outrageous" the position of the Agency for Health Care Administration that behavioral therapy is an experimental treatment and not widely accepted by experts in the field.

Havens, an Equal Justice Works fellow at Florida Legal Services with expertise in public health, presented the plaintiffs' rebuttal expert, who cited an abundance of scientific literature to challenge the claim that ABA therapy is experimental. Neil Kodsi, an attorney from the firm Alderman & Kodsi, provided trial expertise on the case.

"This case will have national impact because, while most states mandate that private insurance companies must cover ABA, most state Medicaid programs do not provide coverage," said lead counsel Miriam Harmatz of Florida Legal Services. The children's treating physicians explained the extreme disparity between the prognoses of privately insured children with autism who receive the ABA therapy and those on Medicaid, who do not. Harmatz, who is one of the state's leading Medicaid advocates, explained that Judge Lenard's order "will eliminate this tragic disparity."

In the order, the judge wrote that it is "imperative that autistic children in Florida receive [behavioral therapy] immediately to prevent irreversible harm to these children's health and development."

Havens and Vigues-Pitan were two of the four plaintiffs' attorneys on the case. While a student at Miami Law, Havens served as a HOPE Fellow and interned with Florida Legal Services. She was also a member of the Moot Court Board and served on the Public Interest Leadership Board. Vigues-Pitan, the advocacy director of Florida Legal Services, who has worked closely with the three children and their families for more than a year, said that the order "will save thousands of other Florida children from being unnecessarily and permanently disabled."