The battle over the federal Obamacare grant

Early in her administration, Gov. Mary Fallin, who opposed the health care reform bill in Congress, found herself being accused of trying to bring Obamacare to Oklahoma
by Chris Casteel Published: April 8, 2013
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In March 2010, Mary Fallin was a tea party hero, marching from her congressional office to the Capitol on a sunny Sunday afternoon to vote against the health care reform bill known as Obamacare. She paused to speak to a huge gathering of protesters on the Capitol grounds — the roots of a political movement that saw the health care bill as a gross intrusion of the federal government into private lives.

A year later, Fallin was the new governor of Oklahoma and dealing with those same forces from a different perspective.

Just weeks into her administration, she was confronted with the issue of whether to accept a $54 million grant to establish a key part of the bill she opposed — an online exchange, or marketplace, for purchasing private health insurance plans.

Separately, but simultaneously, she was pushing legislation related to the exchange.

She and her top aides had adopted what they considered a pragmatic approach: If Oklahoma didn't set up its own exchange, the federal government would force one on the state. And, at a time of budget shortfalls, the state could use the federal grant to do the work it would have to do anyway since Obamacare was the law of the land.

What they found out, quickly, was that the anti-Obamacare people in Oklahoma — and that included not just tea party organizers but established conservative voices — saw her pragmatism as surrender.

Indeed, almost a year to the day that Fallin voted against Obamacare in Washington, anti-Obamacare protesters targeted her at a speech she delivered in Tulsa.

Emails released by the governor's office show the struggles with private citizens, state lawmakers and influential conservatives during an intense few weeks in the spring of 2011 as her top aides tried to defend their positions. They ultimately abandoned the grant and the legislation — and then refused to concede they had changed their position.

February — Fallin announces acceptance of grant

Oklahoma won a $54 million federal grant — applied for by former Gov. Brad Henry's administration — to establish a health care exchange.

Fallin's top aides recognized there would be opposition to accepting the grant because of its link to Obamacare. Communications Director Alex Weintz suggested that the governor issue a statement on a Friday afternoon announcing the acceptance. Friday afternoons are a time when news releases are often ignored or given short shrift since reporters are generally busy working on weekend stories, or gone.

“The current plan is to release this Friday afternoon, but to have it ready before then (today) in case anyone starts attacking us for it,” Weintz wrote.

The statement that Fallin would accept the grant was released on Friday, Feb. 25.

March — Decision challenged

Less than a week after announcing the acceptance of the grant, state Rep. Mike Ritze, a Broken Arrow Republican, issued a news release challenging the decision.

Katie Altshuler, Fallin's policy director, sent an email to other top Fallin aides saying an adviser to Oklahoma's House speaker “thinks we might need to get out in front of this and wondered if we might be interested in doing a joint press conference so we can better shape the message before legislators start making up their minds about this ...”

The governor's office was then hit with phone calls from irate citizens, opposition from the Tulsa County Republican Party and conservative think tank opponents (the DC-based Heritage Foundation and the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs).

Fallin's aides tried to stop the bleeding, first by drafting a letter to legislators portraying state exchanges as an “extraordinary opportunity,” but legislators were hearing otherwise back home.

Health Care 101

by Chris Casteel
Washington Bureau
Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. After covering the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City, he moved to Washington in 1990, where...
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