OKLAHOMA CITY — Lawmakers said the path forward for Gov. Kevin Stitt’s keystone Medicaid expansion proposal is unclear after the Republican leader unexpectedly vetoed its key funding mechanism.
Surprised Republican and Democrat legislative leaders said they’re looking to Stitt for guidance after the GOP leader flummoxed them by vetoing the SoonerCare 2.0 funding plan he pitched. The measure, which would have increased fees on hospitals, would have provided a significant portion of the funding needed to implement the plan.
Some lawmakers said Stitt’s last-minute refusal to fund Medicaid expansion could spell victory for a popular citizen-led ballot initiative, constitutionally forcing legislators to increase health care access to the state’s working poor.
Largely resigned to expansion, some lawmakers were banking on SoonerCare 2.0 to thwart the momentum of State Question 802 heading into the June 30 election. Supporters said Stitt could have tailored his plan to Oklahoma’s unique needs, and it offered a reasonable alternative to traditional Medicaid expansion.
House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said he was “very surprised” by Stitt’s veto late last week.
“We delivered to the governor what was asked from him,” he said. “We wanted him to lead on the health care solution, so it was important for us to deliver that funding mechanism.”
McCall said he received no prior notification the veto was coming.
“The governor hasn’t told me what he wants to do going forward,” he said. “He led on that issue. We’re following on that issue, so we’ll see where he wants to go.”
Expansion amounted to a difficult vote for a lot of legislators, including Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, the president pro tem of the state Senate. Lawmakers were divided but wanted to fund his plan.
“So yes, it was a very difficult vote,” Treat said. “We wished it would have been signed, but that’s his prerogative.”
Treat said if State Question 802 passes, lawmakers will have to find a funding stream.
“Right now, it’s in the voters’ hands,” he said.
Charlie Hannema, a spokesman for Stitt, said the governor wanted to create a health care plan providing prioritized outcomes for Oklahomans. Stitt wanted the plan to be fully funded, but unforeseen circumstances related to the economic downturn and COVID-19 greatly increased the liability for the state.
“Without a complete and sustainable funding source, the governor’s team will continue to explore alternative options to change the way health care services are delivered to Oklahomans to focus on outcomes,” he said. “There are no plans at this point for a special session.”
In January, Stitt stood with members of President Donald Trump’s administration as he announced plans to participate in a new expansion program. The lone governor who announced plans to participate, Stitt and his administration quickly pushed forward with his expansion plan.
SoonerCare 2.0 involves using a controversial block grant program, charging premiums and establishing work requirements. Critics believe SoonerCare 2.0 is likely to face years of legal challenges, ultimately delaying health care access for hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans.
SoonerCare 2.0 could expand Medicaid access to as many as 220,000 state residents, but individuals will lose their coverage if they don’t pay premiums and work, volunteer or attend education programs at least 80 hours a month.
Under both Stitt’s plan and the ballot measure, the state must come up with more than $150 million to fund Oklahoma’s share. The federal government pays 90 percent of the expansion costs.
Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, said Stitt vetoing his own plan was an “interesting” choice.
“We look forward to seeing how we’re going to fund expansion,” Floyd said. “We’re looking to the governor for leadership on that.”
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said Oklahomans have watched other states accept federal funding and expand coverage for nearly a decade, “while Oklahoma Republicans have offered nothing but political talking points.”
More than 540,000 Oklahomans don’t have health insurance.
“While the governor looks for the right time to do something about our ballooning health care crisis, Oklahomans will continue to go without the care they need because they can’t afford to go to the doctor,” she said.
Virgin said Oklahomans can’t wait another decade for the “right time” to accept federal health care dollars.
Luckily, she said, Oklahomans have the chance to force expansion at the ballot box.
“Let’s hope the people of this state will show more empathy than the majority party has for the hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans without insurance,” she said.
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.