Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill Tuesday that will withhold Covid relief funds from one of the state's largest hospital systems unless it stops providing gender-affirming medical care to minors.
The law authorizes more than $108 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act for health services at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center.
But the health system can receive the funds only if it ceases all gender-affirming medical care for those under 18. Oklahoma Children’s Hospital at OU Health currently offers medical services related to gender identity for those up to age 24, including puberty blockers, gender-affirming hormone therapy and help finding surgeons who perform gender-affirming operations, according to its website.
Stitt, a first-term Republican who is up for re-election next month, also called for the GOP-controlled Legislature to ban some gender-affirming treatments statewide when it returns in February, saying in a statement that he wanted to prohibit “all irreversible gender transition surgeries and hormone therapies” on minors.
Transgender medical treatment for children and teens is increasingly under attack in many Republican-led states, labeled as child abuse and subject to criminalizing bans. But it has been available in the U.S. for more than a decade and is endorsed by major medical associations.
Oklahoma’s action comes amid a spate of threats against doctors and institutions that provide medical care for transgender kids, with children’s hospitals nationwide increasing security and working with law enforcement.
OU’s Medical Center said that in light of the legislation Stitt signed, it had ceased hormone-related prescription therapies and surgical procedures for gender-affirming services on patients under 18.
"The OU Health Senior Leadership Team is proactively planning the ceasing of certain gender medicine services across our facilities and that plan is already under development," the hospital system said in a statement to news outlets.
State Sen. Carri Hicks, a Democrat, said last week that about 100 children receive gender-affirming care at OU Children's, according to The Oklahoman.
Their parents now might have to travel to Kansas or Colorado to find care, The Washington Post reported.
Shane Poindexter said his 14-year-old son attempted suicide before he went to the OU Children's clinic, where he has been receiving treatment, including hormone suppressants, for more than a year.
“It is someplace they can go and be who they are and be accepted. Kids are bullies,” Poindexter told The Post. “It was mentally destroying him. The love and affection from that place is amazing. We don’t know what we are going to do now.”
Civil rights groups denounced Stitt and the Legislature for the new law.
“Medical decisions belong to patients, their parents, and their doctors,” Tamya Cox-Toure, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, said in a statement. “Yet politicians, attempting to appeal to their base during an election year, have continued their attacks on bodily autonomy by coming between those directly impacted and the care they need and deserve.”
Oklahoma could face a lawsuit. Federal and some state laws bar federally funded health programs from discriminating on the basis of sex. As a result, the ACLU and other groups have successfully argued in court that state Medicaid policies, for example, cannot bar coverage for gender-affirming care for transgender people if they provide the same treatments — hormone therapy, puberty blockers and double mastectomies, among others — to cisgender people to treat other conditions.
Oklahoma’s Legislature had already targeted transgender young people this year with new laws that restrict their ability to play sports or use school bathrooms consistent with their gender identities.