It appears Oklahomans will get to decide whether the state expands Medicaid access for those without health insurance, after Gov. Kevin Stitt surprised the Legislature and vetoed a funding package for his own plan to expand the system.
Senate Bill 1046 would have increased hospital fees – the Supplemental Hospital Offset Payment Program – up to 4 percent to pay for Stitt’s SoonerCare 2.0. While the governor has reportedly cited a lack of funding as his reason for the veto – claiming it didn’t fully fund the first year or appropriate any dollars for the second – legislators were still somewhat surprised by the move. Now lawmakers feel as if issue is in the hands of voters, as State Question 802 to expand Medicaid is on the June 30 ballot.
State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, said if SQ 802 passes, the state will likely end up using the same funding source as it did to appropriate money for Stitt’s plan.
“We had funded it by moving SHOPP to 4 percent and also taking money out of the stabilization fund, which would have raised $240 million that would have paid for the first year of Medicaid expansion,” said Pemberton. “Since he vetoed it, we did not even try to override it, because there’s a pretty good chance 802 is going to pass, anyway. If 802 passes, then we’ve got a whole year to actually come up with a funding source, and we’ll probably come back to that same source again.”
If the Legislature were to revisit SB 1046 or try to find a new source of funding, it would likely require the state to dip more into the revenue stabilization fund or make larger cuts to state agencies. However, there are no plans for a special legislative session at this time, according to the administration, and the significant economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic persists. And finding dollars in the future for the ballot petition measure could also be difficult for lawmakers.
Still, Oklahomans will get to choose come June whether the state expands Medicaid. SQ 802 has garnered widespread support from Democrats – including State Rep. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah, who has long argued it’s what the state needs.
“I’ve said it and I’ll say it again: It’s absolutely necessary that Medicaid expansion happens in Oklahoma, so that in rural areas like ours, the people have access to health care,” he said. “Not only will that let them have access to health care, but it will also help our rural hospitals. It’s a good deal for Oklahoma.”
Before Stitt’s decision to veto the bill, Cherokee County Libertarian Party Chair Shannon Grimes said it would be wise to hold off on creating new budgetary challenges that will be competing with education and other state services for funding.
“Even before the health and economic challenges we are facing due to the coronavirus, there were rational concerns about Medicaid expansion, it’s viability, and costs,” he said. “The taxes collected by the state of Oklahoma are being crushed between oil price issues and the economic downturn due to lockdowns. I don’t think most realize how bad our budget shortfalls and challenges are likely to be now.”
The potential cost to the state in future years for expanding Medicaid hasn’t halted support for SQ 802, though. Dell Barnes, Cherokee County Democrats vice chair, said he was happy to hear Stitt vetoed the funding bill, because he would rather see expansion go through a ballot initiative. anyway – and he expects it to pass.
“I’ve seen few [state questions] that are as well campaigned for, and there’s been a big public push and a high-visibility push for over a year now,” he said. “I think there’s been enough time to get people aware of the issue, so they’re at least going to know what they’re looking at on the ballot. Half the battle is educating people. It’s not going to be one of those random state questions that confuses people or catches them off guard. They’re going to have a pretty good idea of what it means when they get to the polls.”
Cherokee County Young Republicans Chair Justin Kennedy could not be reached by press time.