Nominations are closed. Come back February 3 to meet the candidates!

Kristi Cabiao

Branch: Air Force

Duty Station: Pope Air Force Base

Number of Deployments: 5

Number of PCS's: 2

Share your military spouse story:
By the time I was 10 years old, I had my life planned out. I would become a family medicine doctor, live in Texas, and open a practice in a small town. My life was going according to plan until halfway through medical residency when I met my husband on a blind date. We married, he continued his career as a pilot and I began mine as a family medicine doctor. We had a baby boy, moved, had another boy shortly after, and then life drastically changed. Our oldest son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at the age of two. I resigned the title of Dr. Cabiao to become a full time advocate, shuttle driver to therapies, and mama bear. I entered the little-known and wonderful world of autism as a military spouse. It came with the challenge of navigating TRICARE, EFMP, ECHO, permanent change of stations, deployments, and endless temporary duty assignments. I thought I had learned resiliency in medical school and residency, but life as a military spouse with an exceptional child pushed me to new limits. My husband had his comrades in arms and I met mine. Other moms who pushed through nights of no sleep, doctor’s appointments, hours of therapy, and the isolation of a pandemic with no end in sight. We banded together to advocate for our children’s healthcare, education, and quality of life. The life I planned as a 10 year old didn’t happen. It’s messy, unexpected, hard, wonderful, exceptional, and full of love. All because of a blind date with an air force pilot.

Share an example of your leadership experience within the military community:
I’m the CEO of Mission Alpha Advocacy. It’s a nonprofit dedicated to advocating for legislative policies that support equal access to healthcare and education for military-connected families with exceptional needs. It is an all-volunteer led nonprofit, and I’m humbled to hold the position of CEO. Through our collaborative efforts with other organizations, Mission Alpha has successfully secured an independent review of the DoD program providing autism services to military beneficiaries. This is an essential first step toward ensuring military families have access to evidence-based care.

Describe your involvement in the military community:
I have met amazing parents and advocates of military beneficiaries with exceptional needs. Our friendships form quickly despite a separation of states or even the Pacific Ocean. The advocacy work has been fulfilling but the friendships formed will last a lifetime. My proudest moments have resulted from giving other military families the tools to advocate for their children's healthcare. Watching those families speak with media, legislators, and military leadership on behalf of their children changed my life.

Describe how you support your community:
I’m involved in advocating for autism services on the federal level, but I have also advocated to support my local community at the state level. In early 2021, I testified before the North Carolina House and Senate Health Committees on the need to remove barriers to licensure for Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) providers. North Carolina is facing a severe shortage of ABA providers but has a large military community. Military families were waiting 6-9 months to begin ABA in some areas of North Carolina due to the provider shortage. Legislation to remove the licensing barriers was passed a few months later. This legislation will encourage more ABA providers to practice in North Carolina and ease the wait times for military families.

What do you advocate for? Why?
I advocate for equal access to healthcare for military-connected families with exceptional needs. Before receiving Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which is an evidence-based therapy for autism, my son didn’t respond to his name, make eye contact, or play. Despite receiving speech therapy and occupational therapy, he was becoming increasingly isolated. My son had no way to communicate with others and the ABA therapists taught me how to enter my son’s world. My experience isn’t an isolated case, ABA has helped thousands of other families. Due to overwhelming evidence supporting ABA, all 50 states mandate coverage of ABA as a basic benefit for those fully insured. The Federal Employees Health Benefit Program and CHAMPVA cover ABA as a basic benefit. Only TRICARE does not cover ABA as a basic medical benefit citing concerns of lack of evidence. For military families, the future of ABA is uncertain as the program funding this service is scheduled to end December 2023.

How have you spread the message of your platform/advocacy?
I have written letters to legislators, military leadership, and DoD officials sharing the challenges military families face when accessing ABA for their children. I had the opportunity to assist with creation of legislation within the National Defense Authorization Act to require a third-party analysis of the Autism Care Demonstration program. I’ve also worked to connect military families with the media so they may share their story of difficulties accessing autism services. Most importantly, I have connected with military families through letters, social media posts, podcasts, and Facebook live sessions to explain the DoD policies and our advocacy efforts to ensure ABA as a basic medical benefit.

What do you hope to accomplish with the AFI Military Spouse of the Year® title?
I'll continue advocating for legislative policies that support equal access to healthcare and education for military families with exceptional needs. I want to build on this year’s success by securing Applied Behavior Analysis as a basic medical benefit. Focusing on autism services is only the beginning. The families represented within the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) have a variety of needs including improved access to mental health services for all beneficiaries, and improved access to respite services for caregivers. It’s important to ensure the mental health services offered to military beneficiaries are in alignment with federal mental health parity laws. The health of military families is essential to securing military readiness for our country. We can’t afford to lose the talent and patriotism represented by exceptional military families due to lack of access to quality healthcare for beneficiaries.

Nominations

Kristi Cabiao is an Air Force active duty spouse who has led the charge to ensure quality medical care for high-risk military families; to include those with disabilities, special needs, and mental health concerns. Kristi began her advocacy with a non-profit organization to reverse changes associated with the Autism Care Demonstration act that provides policy for autistic individuals with Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy. Her engagements include those with members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees as well as the Director of the Defense Health Agency. She also showed exceptional leadership by leading a coalition of special needs experts to ensure care is delivered to families in line with generally accepted standards of care. Furthermore, she coordinated with families across the country to ensure their stories are shared with policy makers. Finally, in Oct 2021, she co-founded a new non-profit organization, Mission Alpha Advocacy, and is its current CEO and President.
- by Mario Cabiao