Two members of Congress from opposite sides of the aisle are urging government officials to rethink their approach to Medicaid and how it can best serve those with disabilities.

In an op-ed published Thursday afternoon on the website of the Capitol Hill newspaper The Hill, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said that federal and state governments could save money by establishing policies to make it easier for people with disabilities to live in community-based settings as opposed to costly institutional facilities.

“Today, as we seek ways to reduce budget deficits, we must seize on the opportunity to make our Medicaid dollars go farther while finally giving millions of individuals with disabilities one of the most fundamental of rights: the choice to live independently,” the lawmakers wrote.

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As of 2009, it cost about $137,000 annually to care for an individual with an intellectual disability in an institution compared to about $44,000 to provide for the same person in the community, Harkin and McMorris Rodgers said.

Nonetheless, they indicated that many current policies leave people with disabilities with no choice but to live in restrictive environments.

“Rather than taking steps to reduce wasteful spending on institutional settings, many states have cut the services that keep people with disabilities in their own homes and communities,” Harkin and McMorris Rodgers wrote, calling the approach “short-sighted.”

The situation persists despite a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case known as Olmstead v. L.C., which found that individuals with disabilities have the right to choose community living whenever possible. In recent years, several states have faced lawsuits for failing to comply.

“If Medicaid cuts are not done in a thoughtful manner, however, they will have disastrous consequences and will lead to systemic civil rights violations,” the lawmakers warned.

The op-ed from Harkin and McMorris Rodgers comes at a tumultuous time for Medicaid. Billions of dollars in extra federal spending on the program from stimulus initiatives two years ago are coming to an end, leading several states to cut payments and benefits.

Meanwhile, federal lawmakers are considering big changes to Medicaid in an effort to trim the nation’s budget deficit.