Tahlequah Daily Press

February 7, 2013

Health care still primary issue at state capitol

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Hundreds of Oklahomans rallied at the state Capitol Tuesday in support of Medicaid expansion, a proposal Gov. Mary Fallin has repeatedly rejected.

The legislative session is under way, and despite over 1,000 bills being filed in both houses, Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, and Sen. Earl Garrison, D-Muskogee, indicated their primary concern is the impending fallout of Fallin’s stance on Medicaid expansion.

“I think the biggest thing legislators are realizing is the importance of the medical communities in their districts,” said Brown. “Hospitals like Tahlequah City Hospital are realizing how much it’s going to cost them if we dig in our heels and don’t expand Medicaid.”

Brown said if Medicaid is not expanded, an option provided by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, hospitals across the state may be forced to close.

“Probably a third of the hospitals in Oklahoma will be closing, and it will be a train wreck,” said Brown. “If the governor is afraid of a political opponent in a primary, how is she going to fare when one-third of the hospitals close?”

Expanding Medicaid would provide health insurance coverage to an estimated 200,000 working poor in Oklahoma. Organizers of the Tuesday rally collected 5,000 signatures on a petition, asking Medicaid be expanded.

In a report by the Associated Press, Fallin spokesman Alex Weintz said the governor had received the petition, but has no plans to revisit the issue.

“As she has said repeatedly, she does not support Obamacare or the unaffordable Medicaid expansion contained within it,” Weintz told the AP. “She is focused on pursuing an Oklahoma plan to improve health and wellness in the state.”

In an earlier Daily Press report, former Sen. Jim Wilson, now a member of the board of directors at NeoHealth, said Fallin hired a consultant for $500,000 to recommend a plan to replace the proposed Medicaid expansion. Wilson believes implementing a plan like this, without federal subsidies, is bound to cost Oklahomans in the long run.

Brown hopes Fallin will reconsider.

“I hope she can find a way to chew on those words and find a way to make a change somehow,” said Brown. “Other Republican states are realizing the benefits of expanding Medicare/Medicaid. Maybe she can work this so she can come out a winner. Right now, she’s kind of dug herself a hole.”

Many of Brown’s Republican colleagues are reviewing their opposition to the proposal.

“Most of the members up here were against the Affordable Care Act because of the mandate [by the federal government],” said Brown. “They’re not against expanding Medicaid, but against the mandate. They’re starting to ease up on it, and can see the massive train wreck down the road.”

Garrison said Medicaid expansion has been his focus, despite his not serving on a health committee.

“That’s really on my mind,” said Garrison. “I listened to the governor’s address about not expanding Medicaid, and I’m am completely opposed to her position. We have so many poor people living without health care. And we need the [federal] money. The first three years [of Medicaid expansion] is paid for by the federal government, and the following four years is covered 90 percent. It’s just a no-brainer to me. And these people say they don’t want federal money, but they pay federal taxes. All we’re doing is getting that money back.”

Garrison said he will fight to do everything he could to expand Medicaid.

“I just hope other legislators will do the same,” he said.

Sen. Wayne Shaw, R-Grove, was elected to his first term this past November, and this is his first legislative session. Shaw returned a phone call from the Press Thursday, but said he was being summoned to the Senate floor for a roll-call vote.

“It’s going well; I’m just learning the ropes,” said Shaw. “I’m sure there are a lot of issues that will impact our citizenry directly, especially with regard to education and other things, but I don’t have any specific issues [I’m targeting] right now.”

Calls to the office of State Rep. Will Fourkiller, D-Stilwell – who also represents part of Cherokee County – were not returned by press time.