OKLAHOMA CITY — Officials with the Legislature’s fiscal watchdog division clashed Tuesday with executives from the Department of Human Services during a “very contentious” hearing over how to clear a 13-year wait list to provide services to developmentally disabled Oklahomans.

A study, commissioned by lawmakers, was supposed to focus on problems with a state program that has left 5,619 developmentally disabled Oklahomans on waiting lists for an average of 13 years, as well as recommend strategies to address the problem. But instead, disability advocates, taxpayers and lawmakers watched officials argue over data, whether the probe was an appropriate use of resources and whether one branch of government stole another’s work.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, complained that DHS officials provided them with a binder containing their own report contradicting the Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) findings just two minutes before the hearing.

“I hope I never sit through another meeting like this because it’s a waste of my time, and it’s a waste of the citizens of Oklahoma’s time,” said state Rep. Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City. He later said LOFT and DHS officials should have hashed out their differences ahead of the meeting.

State lawmakers from both parties said they want to develop cost-effective strategies to eliminate the wait list and get disabled Oklahomans the services they need.

“To be crystal clear, I have an appetite to clear the wait list,” Echols said. “As we get past the details in there, what’s interesting I guess, what I would tell the public, is everyone in there wants the same things, which is to clear the wait list.”

LOFT’s findings included:

- An assertion that DHS’ management of the program has not led to substantial progress toward providing services to all those waiting.

- The number of people moved from the waiting list into services over the past decade has remained relatively flat despite lawmakers dedicating almost $9 million over 8 years for the program.

- DHS has long failed to conduct intake assessments to determine which people need immediate services.

- That the in-home program for children age 3 to 17 has the lowest use rate despite a long wait list and being the most cost-effective.

DHS officials disputed most of the findings or the data used to reach those conclusions.

Justin Brown, DHS executive director, at one point argued that perhaps his chief of staff was too transparent with LOFT.

“Pieces of this report exploit the transparency provided by DHS to LOFT … and are indicative of why the agency has historically been so closed and siloed to any external review or cross-agency collaboration,” Brown said. “This report in a weak way tries to articulate the plan DHS laid out as though LOFT developed it and while simultaneously insinuating that there was no plan.”

Brown said his agency has previously developed a historic “bold and ambitious” public goal to end “this unacceptable wait for services, and even in the face of illogical oppositions, we remain committed because of the people we serve.”

DHS officials acknowledged that its ability to operate the program has been hindered by a shortage of providers, historically low reimbursement rates and soaring health care costs.

They said, though, that they have a plan to solve the issues, but it’s going to take a financial investment from lawmakers that also includes increasing provider rates to ensure there are enough providers available for everyone on the wait list.

LOFT estimated it would cost about $156 million — including $49 million in state appropriations — to clear the wait list. The federal government would pay the remainder.

Joe Dorman, CEO of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, said the meeting was “very contentious” with both sides feeling like they had the best solutions.

Dorman said while there was a “tremendous amount of transparency,” it’s clear that there needs to be greater lines of communication between everyone involved and a clearer understanding about the program. He said it’s fine to be transparent, but DHS needs to provide education and dialogue.

“No matter which data you look at, the bottom line really is that the total number of people receiving waiver services has declined over the last 10 years,” said RoseAnn Duplan, with the Oklahoma Disability Law Center. “And the question we should be asking is how do we change that? How do we serve more people?”

Duplan said her big takeaway from the meeting is that there’s not a solid plan for moving forward, and there needs to be one. And despite DHS’ repeated claims of transparency, that’s not been the case, she said.

“They have not included seasoned advocates and parents in these discussions,” she said. “They’ve gone out of their way to exclude them. They’ve closed meetings to the public that were previously open. They’ve not been sharing data with us or anyone else. And I think moving forward, there does need to be transparency. We need to bring everyone – all of the stakeholders – to the table, and have open discussions to formulate a plan on how to move forward and serve more people.”

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

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