Gov. Mary Fallin called on lawmakers Friday to approve a measure that would provide health insurance coverage for about 9,000 low-income Oklahomans who will lose their insurance at the end of this year.
To pay for the coverage, the Republican governor is proposing redirecting $50 million in state tobacco taxes now going to the Insure Oklahoma program.
“Insure Oklahoma would then continue as a smaller, more targeted program run with state dollars only,” Fallin said.
The federal government last week denied the state of Oklahoma's request for a waiver that would have extended the Insure Oklahoma program. The program is expected to lose its federal funding Dec. 31.
“While none of this mess is the fault of the Oklahoma Legislature, it's imperative that our lawmakers work now to prevent currently insured Oklahomans from being left without access to affordable health care,” Fallin said. “I am asking the Legislature to send me a bill that would continue Insure Oklahoma as a state-funded program before they adjourn for the year.”
Legislative leaders are hoping to adjourn by the end of next week.
Fallin's request met with a thud from House Speaker T.W. Shannon.
“I have no plans to continue a government-run insurance program that will cost $50 million to serve 9,000 Oklahomans,” said Shannon, R-Lawton. “I simply do not believe it's the government's job.
“I don't believe providing health insurance is a proper or efficient function of government,” he said. “As conservatives, we should stand against such desires no matter where they come from, be it local or state government, federal bureaucrats or President Obama himself.”
‘Not a new idea'
State tobacco tax revenues along with federal Medicaid money and payments from workers and employers are used to fund Insure Oklahoma, which provides health insurance to about 30,000 low-income Oklahomans.
About 21,000 of the 30,000 Insure Oklahoma participants will eventually be covered by the health care exchange, or online marketplace, which is part of the Affordable Care Act, said Alex Weintz, Fallin's communications director.
Lawmakers should consider the governor's last-minute request, he said.
“The fact that there's no fiscal impact and that we're essentially just narrowing the scope of an existing program means that this should be logistically possible and realistic to think that we can get this done in the last week,” Weintz said. “It's not a new idea.”
Fallin last year rejected the proposals by President Barack Obama, a Democrat, to expand the Medicaid health care program in Oklahoma to comply with the Affordable Care Act and to establish an online marketplace for the uninsured to shop for health insurance.
Fallin and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, which administers Insure Oklahoma, are working on a plan to provide health coverage to 200,000 uninsured, working-class Oklahomans without expanding Medicaid. Fallin said in November she rejected the Medicaid expansion because it would cost Oklahoma up to $475 million between now and 2020, with escalating annual expenses as well as increased reliance on federal money that may be unavailable in the future.
The federal government would have paid $3.6 billion over seven years, including 100 percent of costs for the first three years.
Chairman has doubts
Rep. Doug Cox, chairman of the House budget subcommittee on public health and social services, questioned Fallin's proposal. Cox, R-Grove, proposed legislation that would have insured about 150,000 people by accessing the expanded Medicaid funds at little or no state expense. His measure failed to advance and is considered dormant this year.
“It's great to try to save Insure Oklahoma, but I don't think her plan is very fiscally responsible,” said Grove, an emergency room physician. “She painted herself into a tight corner and now the way she's proposing to get out of it is admirable, but I really can't support it from a fiscal standpoint.”
Fallin's proposal could win legislative support next week, he said.
“The governor is a powerful figurehead,” Cox said.