Gov. Mary Fallin released 31 documents Monday that her office had withheld from a major public records release concerning her decisions about the Affordable Care Act. Political and pragmatic concerns take center stage in the newly released emails.
On Nov. 14, 2012, Fallin press secretary Alex Weintz sent an email to Katie Altshuler, the governor’s policy director, and Denise Northrup, the governor’s chief of staff. Weintz discussed whether the governor should abandon her support for setting up a state health care exchange for people to select insurance.
“In my opinion the two choices that make the most sense are: State exchanges can be good if done right so we are going to build one OR Obamacare sucks, we aren’t going to help implement it and we aren’t creating an exchange,” Weintz said in the email.
“Since there is no way the legislature is going to allow us to do the former, I suggest we do the latter.”
Ultimately, the governor decided against setting up a state exchange. People in Oklahoma instead use one set up by the federal government.
Responding to public records requests, Fallin’s office in March 2013 released more than 51,000 pages of documents about her approach to the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare.
She withheld 31 documents totaling 100 pages. Her general counsel, Steven Mullins, said those pages were exempt from the state Open Records Act on the grounds of executive privilege, deliberative process privilege and attorney-client privilege.
The decision to withhold documents was challenged in court. A judge ruled June 17 that the governor could withhold the documents under a deliberative process privilege.
On Monday, Mullins said the governor had decided to voluntarily waive the privilege and release the documents because the court affirmed the privilege, the documents have become less sensitive and she believes in transparency and openness.
The documents that were released shed light on the inner workings of the governor’s office.
In 2012, the governor’s office was considering whether to expand Medicaid, as envisioned under Obamacare, with the federal government picking up much of the early expense.
State Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, was strongly against this and issued a news release on July 3, 2012, urging Fallin to “be on the front line with those governors who have already announced they won’t submit to the federal health care law.”
The same day as Anderson’s news release, Weintz sent Northrup an email at 4:43 p.m. saying the governor had decided against Medicaid expansion.
Northrup wrote back at 5:39 p.m.
“That’s fine. I just don’t know why we’d rush into a decision like that. I hardly think the political pressure of Patrick Anderson is worth jumping into a decision like that.”
The next day, Weintz wrote:
“The longer we wait, the more it looks like we are getting bullied by people like Patrick Anderson.”
In the 2011 legislative session, Fallin was backing a bill to set up a health care exchange. Ultimately, the Oklahoma Senate refused to take it up.
Before that, votes were being counted by her then-legislative liaison, Kaleb Bennett.
In a March 25, 2011, email, Bennett counted 14 ayes, nine nays and three undecided.
Tea Party pressure and political considerations figured into some of the nays, he said in the email.
One of those nays, Sen. Josh Brecheen, R-Coalgate, “thinks it’s political suicide,” Bennett wrote.
Another nay, Sen. Rick Brinkley, R-Owasso, “feels like he has to throw some kind of bone to his Tea Party crowd but understands the situation. Wants to help but for now a hard no.”
Two other nays — Sen. Mike Mazzei, R-Tulsa, and Sen. Dan Newberry, R-Tulsa — felt the issue was “too hot politically.”
Ultimately, Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman announced the bill would not be heard, even though Bennett, in his vote count, had included him among those in support.
The earlier document release included a single-word email from Northrup when she found out the bill had died: “Dammit (sic).”
In an interview Monday, Weintz said that even though most of the emails released by the governor’s office discussed messaging and the politics behind Obamacare, the merits of the act and what it would mean for uninsured Oklahomans were discussed, but these discussions typically took place in cabinet meetings as opposed to email exchanges.
“Generally what you can see from all of the emails is that it was an important decision, one we were taking seriously and deliberating in person,” he said. “We spent months as an office talking about this.”
Editor's note: You can read and/or download the emails in PDF form below.