Medicaid expansion
Supporters of Medicaid expansion talk outside of the Oklahoma State Capitol on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. (Trinity Cohee)

Buses pulled up to the south entrance of the Oklahoma State Capitol on Wednesday morning carrying citizens from all over the state. Clad in rain jackets, they held signs calling for expanded Medicaid coverage, a component of the Affordable Care Act that Oklahoma has yet to adopt. Organizers had set up booths for attendees to sign in, pick up fliers and fill out postcards to be sent to legislators.

The Rally for Coverage promoted a new ballot initiative that would expand Medicaid coverage to lower-income Oklahomans, many of whom struggle to afford health care currently.

Rev. Joe Alsay from St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church rallied the crowd as the first speaker.

“We have laid before us the unprecedented opportunity to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans,” he said. “There are a lot of Oklahomans who are sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

The Coalition to Expand Coverage, a group of Oklahoma organizations and individuals who support the initiative, hosted the rally at the Capitol. According to their website, expanded coverage would mean “more than 100,000 uninsured Oklahomans could get the health care they need.”

Blatt: ‘One in six adults go without coverage’

David Blatt, executive director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, spoke of spotty health coverage throughout the state.

“Oklahoma continues to have among the very highest rates of uninsured (citizens) in the whole United States. One in six adults go without coverage,” Blatt said. “Our Legislature and our governor need to understand that they have a final chance to do their job, and if they don’t, the people deserve the chance to decide this issue on the ballot.”

Known as State Question 802, the recently filed ballot initiative would change the Oklahoma Constitution to expand Medicaid coverage for certain adults whose income is less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level, an amount that varies depending on the number of people in the household. An initiative to change the Constitution currently would take 177,958 signatures in order to be added to the ballot and brought to a public vote.

McEntire: Legislature has ‘been working hard’ on own plan

House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D-Norman) speaks to supporters of Medicaid expansion outside of the Oklahoma State Capitol on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. (Trinity Cohee)

Gov. Kevin Stitt announced his opposition to the ballot measure on Tuesday and said he recognized the need to provide Oklahomans with an alternative. Some members of the Legislature want to pass a plan before they adjourn in May.

Rep. Marcus McEntire (R-Duncan) and House Minority Leader Emily Virgin (D-Norman) both spoke at Wednesday’s rally to advocate for health care expansion.

“The House and the Senate have been working on a plan for about a year and-a-half now,” McEntire said. “We have been working, and we’ve been working hard. I’ve put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into the plan that hopefully we’ll be able to unveil.”

While McEntire spoke more about the plan some of the Legislature hopes to propose this session, Virgin spoke about the consequences of not expanding.

“If we don’t expand by 2022, we will have lost out on $8.6 billion in federal funding,” Virgin told the crowd. “You came up here because you are ready for this state to stop talking about doing what is right, and take action to do what is right.”

Efforts to expand Medicaid by either the Legislature or SQ 802 will be met with opposition. For instance, the conservative think tank Oklahoma Council for Public Affairs attended Wednesday’s rally and published a report online critiquing the fiscal impact of such proposals.