By Sean Murphy
OKLAHOMA CITY — Hundreds of people rallied at the state Capitol on Tuesday and urged Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin to reconsider her rejection of a Medicaid expansion that would provide health insurance to an estimated 200,000 working poor in the state.
After about 200 people gathered on the north steps of the Capitol, some holding signs that read "Health Care is a Human Right" and "Expand Medicaid Now," organizers delivered more than 5,000 signatures from an online petition urging the Republican governor to reconsider her decision.
Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz said the governor's office received the petition but has no plans to revisit the issue.
"As she has said repeatedly, she does not support either Obamacare or the unaffordable Medicaid expansion contained within it," Weintz said. "She is focused on pursuing an Oklahoma plan to improve health and wellness in the state."
Despite support from hospital and medical officials and chambers of commerce, Fallin in November rejected the option under the federal health care law to expand the state's Medicaid program to include Oklahomans earning up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $30,000 for a family of four. She also said the state would not participate in the creation of an insurance exchange, or online marketplace where people could shop for health insurance.
Both decisions were praised by tea party groups and conservative lawmakers who have railed against the federal health care law as an intrusion into state's rights.
Rep. Doug Cox, an emergency room physician from Grove, was one of the few Republicans in the Oklahoma Legislature to support the expansion. Cox said he hopes Fallin will reconsider her decision, as other Republican governors have in recent weeks, although he said he's not optimistic.
"One of the things that discourages me is when I hear people talk about the expansion of the Medicaid program ... as an entitlement program," Cox said. "To me, that conjures up giving something to people who are too lazy to work, giving something to deadbeats. The expansion of Medicaid is going to help good, hardworking Oklahomans. The people that it will help are those Oklahomans who work for minimum wage or a little bit above minimum wage, and they work for small companies that can't afford to provide health care insurance for their employees."
Donald Williams, a 57-year-old diabetic from Oklahoma City, said he works part time doing odd jobs like mowing lawns, trimming trees and sewing, but doesn't earn enough to pay for health insurance.
"We are in a bind here in Oklahoma," said Williams, who said he often can't afford to buy insulin and ends up going to an emergency room for treatment about twice a year. "You'd be surprised at the number of people who are dying because of lack of medical care."
According to estimates from the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, about 17 percent of Oklahoma's population, or 630,000 people, have no health insurance.
Alice Anderton, 63, of Norman, said she cannot afford health insurance on her annual income of about $14,000 and does not yet qualify for Medicare. She said she frequently seeks medical care at community clinics and often cannot afford simple procedures like lab tests.
"If I get a $100 bill, it's not easy to afford," Anderton said. "It comes out of food."
Tres Savage, a spokesman for VarietyCare, a nonprofit community health center, said Anderton is the kind of person who would benefit from an expansion of Medicaid.
"Many people who spend most of their adult life from 18 to 64 working jobs that don't provide health insurance will roll onto Medicare at age 65 having not had regular health insurance or health care for more than 40 years," Savage said. "At that point these patients are often very sick and extremely costly not only to the health care system but to our federally financed Medicare system."