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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

Rep. Seneca Scott, a Tulsa Republican, forwarded an email to the governor's office from a large employer in his district complaining about the exchanges. Sen. David Holt, an Oklahoma City Republican, emailed Altshuler to say he was troubled by the grant. And Rep. Mark McCullough, R-Sapulpa, sent an email about his concerns regarding Tulsa County GOP opposition to the exchange bill.

“I've gotten quite a bit of concerned feedback from supporters in my district on HB 2130,” McCullough wrote to members of the governor's and House staff. “Now (Randy) Brogdon and the Tulsa County Platform Committee are officially against it ... I'm not trying to cause trouble by saying anything, but we may need to get out in front of this before it blows up ... It's never good to lose a major county party apparatus on something as big as this.”

Fallin's then-secretary of state Glenn Coffee responded, “Again, we need to get aggressive with our media strategy as well.”

On March 23, Fallin's staff got a warning from a state lawmaker that a Tulsa tea party group was planning to protest outside a speech she was making the following day.

On March 24, the same day as the protest, Fallin aides scrambled to save their exchange legislation amid growing concerns from state senators. They reached out to lawmakers and to outside groups with an interest in the bill, but a key senator stalled action because of concerns about the grant.

A week later, the Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman announced that the exchange legislation as written was dead and that the $54 million grant should be rejected. Fallin's office started receiving form letters opposing the grant that were organized by a group the governor's staff linked to tea party members.

April — Fallin rejects grant

Fallin's office received form letters organized by the Oklahoma Campaign for Liberty saying, “Oklahomans overwhelmingly rejected Obamacare. I don't want to create a federally supervised health insurance system in Oklahoma. I ask that you reject the $54 Million bribe from the Obama Administration and oppose HB 2130.”

Responding to the effort, Altshuler said it was “essential” the governor's office establish “some way forward this week.”

On April 6, retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Lee Baxter, of Lawton, a member of the board of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs sent emails to Coffee and Fallin Chief of Staff Denise Northrup warning that the grant money issue was hurting Fallin with the conservative think tank and the large donors behind it.

“Despite all intentions and all efforts, the Governor is facing being labeled as ‘bringing Obamacare to Oklahoma' if we stay with the federal money,” Baxter wrote. “She will be perceived, even tho it is NOT TRUE of abandoning the anti Obamacare position … I have NEVER seen pushback like OCPA is getting from it's members and large donors like they are getting on this issue and they are insistent in their positions.”

Having lost the Senate on the exchange bill and facing continued backlash on the grant, Fallin's office prepared on April 13 to announce that the state would not accept the $54 million grant and that the governor and legislators would take a new approach to setting up an exchange.

Less than two months after announcing that the state would accept the grant, Fallin rejected it.

When reporters asked for a response to Democratic lawmakers' charges that the governor had flip-flopped, Altshuler wrote to fellow aides, “I think we want to say there has been no flip-flop on Obamacare — she voted against it and has always been against it.”

“Yes,” Northrup wrote, “no flip-flopping.”

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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