The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

January 31, 2013

Gov. Fallin not backing down from Medicaid stance

By Sean Murphy
Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY — Gov. Mary Fallin said Thursday she has no plans to revisit her decision to reject an expansion of Medicaid in Oklahoma, saying instead she wants the federal government to give policymakers in the state the flexibility to develop their own plan for improving the health of its citizens.

Despite repeated calls from Democrats for Fallin to reverse her decision, the Republican governor reiterated her position that the Medicaid expansion would ultimately prove too costly to the state.

"I don't think we can afford it, and I've laid out my position on that," Fallin said during an interview with The Associated Press. "I have asked a consultant to analyze our options for being able to provide the best health care service in the state of Oklahoma and how we run our Medicaid system."

The Oklahoma Health Care Authority, the state agency that oversees the Medicaid program, issued a $500,000 consulting contract with Utah-based Leavitt Partners to analyze and make recommendations for developing an Oklahoma-based plan for increasing health insurance coverage in the state.

Although the federal government has agreed to pay the full cost of the Medicaid expansion for the first three years of the program, the OHCA projects a state cost of more than $7 million a year to administer the program for the first three years. By the time the state picks up 10 percent of the cost of the expansion in 2020, the OHCA estimates an annual cost of $65 million to the state if all of the 200,000 eligible uninsured Oklahomans were to participate in the program.

Fallin, who said she spoke Wednesday with U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, said she urged Sebelius to consider giving states more flexibility to develop their own plans or perhaps partner with other states to meet the health care needs of citizens.

"We want to be able to tailor our own health system, understanding that we've got to comply with federal law, but to do it in a way that we think is in the best interest of Oklahoma and our budget constraints," Fallin said.

Meanwhile, the governor said she will ask lawmakers to consider boosting the budget for the Health Care Authority to pay for an anticipated increase in the number of Medicaid-eligible Oklahoma residents who are not currently enrolled in the system. She said she also will endorse a plan to encourage Oklahomans to create healthier communities, schools and workplaces and address preventable illnesses connected to smoking, obesity and lack of exercise.

"Studies have shown that 70 percent of the illnesses in America are caused by our own health habits and lifestyle habits," said Fallin, who last year banned smoking on state property and pushed for the construction of a fitness center in the basement of the state Capitol.

Senate Democratic Leader Sean Burrage, who has criticized Fallin's rejection of the Medicaid expansion, said he's willing to listen to Fallin's proposals for improving the health of Oklahoma residents, but remains convinced the Medicaid expansion is an opportunity the state shouldn't pass up.

"It's the right thing to do," said Burrage, D-Claremore, who has introduced a bill to expand Medicaid coverage in Oklahoma. "It gives financial security to low-income, working adults, because when you're out there uninsured, you're very vulnerable. You're one health crisis away from bankruptcy."