OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma lawmakers want to implement a five-year waiting period before new residents can even sign up for a waiting list for Medicaid programs that provide services to adults and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The program is designed to help keep disabled Oklahomans out of institutionalized settings.

State Rep. Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa, said there are about 5,800 Oklahomans already on the waiting list for these services. Those individuals typically wait an average of 13 years for services. He said the latest reports show Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services is just now processing applications from February 2008.

Lawson said House Bill 2899 is part of an ongoing plan to fully fund and eliminate the wait list, but he also said lawmakers first want to ensure that “organic Oklahoma families” are prioritized. He said a contractor will sort through the existing wait list over the next few months to ensure all individuals are still eligible and in need of services.

“I have every reason to believe that if we were to eliminate the list and not have some safeguards in place to ensure that we’re going to treat organic Oklahoma families first that we would see an influx in demand on the capacity that we’re able to provide,” he said.

Lawson acknowledged the five-year wait is “arbitrary,” and said he’s fielded questions the past week about what happens if a family moves here because of a job opportunity, a military assignment, or gives birth. He said he expects DHS would be required to promulgate rules for those circumstances.

“Five years we feel like is enough time for us to service the people that are here in the state first, and to kind of disincentivize people from coming around here and dropping their kids off for services,” he said.

Rhys Gay, of Edmond, returned to Oklahoma last year after taking a job in Kansas City. He and his wife added their 3-year-old son, Everett, who has Down syndrome, to the wait list in hopes that he’ll finally be eligible for assistance by the time he reaches adulthood.

Gay, who was born and raised in Oklahoma, said that had the family moved to Oklahoma after July 1, he wouldn’t have been able to add Everett to the wait list until he was 8. Then the family would have to wait for perhaps another 13 years on top of that to obtain services for him, including personal care, transportation and general living assistance.

He said he does not buy the argument that people flock to states such as Wisconsin or Minnesota that currently have low waiting periods or lists.

“It’s not a thing,” he said. “You don’t move for services. If all the other states started doing things like (Oklahoma is proposing), you’re essentially just trapping families in states.”

In a statement, the Oklahoma Disability Law Center said it believes a five-year residency requirement is unconstitutional. The group, which advocates for Oklahomans with disabilities, said not only does House Bill 2899 create a requirement it believes is prohibited by Medicaid, it also may violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The group also argued that the bill creates “discriminatory limits” on one population.

“This places restrictions only on services for those who have intellectual disabilities,” the group said.

Joe Dorman, CEO of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, said the measure sends the wrong message to those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He said the lengthy wait list is something that has needed to be addressed for 20 years.

The impact of the proposed legislation on families would be “horrible,” he added.

“Any waiting period is ridiculous. And then for us to put something in place for Oklahomans who may be transferred here or move here for other reasons, to say they can’t qualify within a reasonable amount of time, it’s just cruel,” Dorman said.

Steve Ross, executive director of the Oklahoma Foundation for the Disabled, said there are an estimated 10,000-plus adults with developmental disabilities in the Oklahoma City metro alone. His organization runs an adult daycare.

He said the Legislature’s plan “just adds another hurdle for families to be able to take care of their loved ones.”

Ross said middle- to low-income families have few options for 12 years unless they can afford to pay for care out of pocket. He also said lawmakers have allocated $6 million over the past three years, which has eliminated just 600 people from the wait list.

He said the state has also previously attempted to clean up the list, something he said he knows because he has a special needs adult who lives with him.

The state accidentally scrubbed the man off the waiting list the last time because it had outdated contact information for his caregivers.

When they realized their mistake, Ross said they then added him back on — at the end of the list. The man now has to wait another 12 years to qualify for Medicaid assistance, he said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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