Children with autism are eligible for special education services as long as they stay in school. But when graduation day comes, most of the services stop.

So, it was good news to hear Maine Behavioral Healthcare announce that it plans to build a new autism center that will provide services for 200 adults along with 400 to 500 children and their families,

The Center of Excellence in Autism and Developmental Disorders, to be located on the Spring Harbor Hospital campus near the Portland-Westbrook city line, will provide outpatient services that include psychiatry, psychology, speech therapy, occupational therapy and case management. The new $14.7 million facility will greatly expand the number of children who are now being delivered services in a South Portland facility, but will offer adult services for the first time.

Adults with autism and developmental disabilities have long been an underserved population in Maine. After closing the Pineland Center in 1996, Maine was considered a national model for the expansion of community-based care. But as state revenues collapsed during the Great Recession, compensation for direct care workers was cut, creating a labor shortage. Waiting lists for supportive housing grew as programs struggled to keep their doors open.

There are about 5,500 intellectually disabled Mainers receive help through Medicaid. The waitlist for supportive housing through one Medicaid program is 1,600 names deep.

The new center would not offer housing for adults with autism, but it would give people a place to go for help with emotional and behavioral needs. Although the center will be a welcome addition to the service environment, it won’t begin to meet the need.

While the new services are promising, underfunding direct care programs is a “statewide crisis,” said Laura Cordes, executive director of the Maine Association for Community Service Providers, which represents the nonprofits before the Legislature

“People with intellectual disabilities and autism — adults and children alike — continue to wait for or lose services due to a severe workforce crisis caused by low reimbursement rates and compounded by increased expenses, a rising minimum wage and low unemployment rate. The current (reimbursement) rate provides for an hourly wage for workers that is below the new minimum wage,” Cordes said in a statement.

Maine Behavioral Healthcare, a subsidiary of MaineHealth, the parent company of Maine Medical Center, is filling an important gap with this new facility. But lawmakers should do their part as well, and adequately fund these important services.

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