Federal officials wasted no time determining a state law violates the constitution by prioritizing "organic Oklahoma families" over others when providing services for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

A similar level of determination should be demonstrated as state officials work to whittle down the list of nearly 6,000 people who have been waiting years for services they deserve. State lawmakers should set aside some time during their next legislative session to find a way to provide services without discriminating against one class or another.

The authors of House Bill 2899 attempted to address a problem that has existed for too long in Oklahoma. They were trying to resolve an embarrassingly long average wait time of about 13 years for services provided by Medicaid programs to adults and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities but went about it the wrong way.

State Rep. Mark Lawson, R-Sapulpa, prioritized “organic Oklahoma families” by imposing a five-year residency requirement on newcomers. Lawson said at the time that would provide “enough time for us to service” those on the waiting list and “disincentivize people from coming around here and dropping their kids off for services.”

Advocates for the disabled warned about the constitutional infirmities of the law, which took effect July 1. Those warnings were confirmed this week. 

Daniel Tsai, a deputy administrator and director with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, writes in a letter addressed to the legal director of the National Health Law Program and others the 14th Amendment requires all states to treat individuals who have moved recently to a state the same as individuals who have resided there longer. Different treatment is constitutionally permissible, Tsai states, only when it is necessary to promote a compelling governmental interest.

Lawmakers should be commended for attempting to eliminate the waiting list for Medicaid programs that provide services to those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. And legislators cannot be faulted for promoting policies that align with ideals they share with constituents. 

There does, however, appear to be longstanding tradition at the Oklahoma Capitol of pushing through legislation that will draw legal challenges. Litigating these matters is an unnecessary waste of resources that could be put to better use — maybe even pay for some of the services people have been waiting more than a decade to receive. 

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