By Sean Murphy
The Associated Press
OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Mary Fallin proposed a last-minute legislative change Friday to the state’s Insure Oklahoma program that would direct $50 million in state tobacco taxes to pay for more than 9,000 people who are expected to lose their health insurance under the program.
Insure Oklahoma currently uses federal Medicaid funding, state tobacco tax revenue and payments from workers and employers to provide health insurance to about 30,000 low-income Oklahomans, but the federal government notified Oklahoma last week that the program must change in order to qualify for federal funding. The program is expected to lose its federal funding Dec. 31.
Fallin released a statement Friday urging lawmakers to redirect the $50 million so Insure Oklahoma could continue to operate as a “smaller, more targeted program run with state dollars only.”
“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,” Fallin said. “Unless a bill is passed this year, 9,000 working, low-income Oklahomans will be stripped of their health insurance. That is not an outcome that any of us at the State Capitol should accept.”
Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz said the rest of the 20,000 or so people currently enrolled in the Insure Oklahoma program likely qualify for federal subsidies to purchase insurance as part of the Affordable Care Act.
House Speaker T.W. Shannon did not appear eager Friday to embrace Fallin’s proposal.
“I don’t believe providing health insurance is a proper or efficient function of government,” Shannon, R-Lawton, said in a statement. “I have no plans to continue a government-run insurance program that will cost $50 million to serve 9,000 Oklahomans. I simply do not believe it’s the government’s job.”
Shannon wasn’t the only Republican legislator skeptical of Fallin’s proposal.
“She wants to use the $50 million in state taxpayer money, yet we passed up the opportunity to use 100 percent of federal match money. I don’t think her plan makes fiscal sense to me,” said Rep. Doug Cox, R-Grove, an emergency room physician.
Amid pressure from tea party activists and other conservative grassroots groups, Fallin last November rejected billions of dollars in federal funding for an expansion of Medicaid offered under the federal health care law. Approval would have extended health insurance coverage to nearly 200,000 uninsured Oklahoma residents, but Fallin said it would prove too costly for the state and the country.
Cox and Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa, had an alternative proposal to expand the Insure Oklahoma program, Senate Bill 640, so it might qualify for a federal waiver and continue to operate, but Fallin was hesitant to endorse that plan.
“She backed herself into an awful tight corner with her rhetoric. Senate Bill 640 would have given her a way out of that corner,” Cox said. “Now she’s chosen to go this route. I guess we just have different opinions on what we should do to be the best stewards of the taxpayer money.”
Still, Cox said with two weeks remaining before the Legislature must adjourn, it’s certainly possible to consider and pass a bill that would protect the 9,000 Insure Oklahoma recipients who otherwise would lose their insurance coverage.
“If anyone can do it, the power of the governor’s support carries a lot of weight with the Legislature,” Cox said.