COVID testing
Nurses prepare test kits for each person arriving at the drive-thru COVID-19 testing location in Norman, Oklahoma, on Thursday, April 9, 2020. (Michael Duncan)

At the end of his COVID-19 press conference Tuesday, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt answered a final question from a member of the media about the future of testing for the novel coronavirus.

In his answer, Stitt noted a potential pending conundrum for Oklahoma and other states: the Dec. 31 functional expiration of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding. For months, states have used CARES Act money to make COVID-19 testing free to the public, but uncertainty exists about how state tests will be paid for in 2021. (The CARES Act also included money for insurance companies to cover additional COVID testing.)

“The third package ends on Dec. 31. We all knew that, Congress knows that. Insurance companies are working to see what the testing looks like on Jan. 1. We should have enough funds to get us through Dec. 31. That was kind of our plan, and then we will see what happens next year in the state,” Stitt said. “The Legislature may have to appropriate money for that. Those are all things we will work with the Legislature to do.”

If the Oklahoma Legislature will need to appropriate money for hundreds of thousands of coronavirus tests, that was news to Senate Appropriations and Budget Chairman Roger Thompson (R-Okemah).

“We’ve never had any discussion about that. I’ve not been involved with the Legislature taking that up,” Thompson said Tuesday after being informed of the governor’s comment. “I thought CARES money was sufficient to take care of that, and we’ve been doing it. That’s interesting.”

Thompson said he plans to reach out to Secretary of State Brian Bingman or another Stitt administration member “to try to figure out what they are doing.”

“Right now, the CARES money has been taking care of testing, and this is just a brand new concept,” Thompson said. “So I don’t have any idea the cost of it or what the thought is. I just need to do more investigation.”

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt speaks to media Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. (Tres Savage)

Lankford ‘still optimistic’ about congressional deal

Stitt, however, is not the only state leader pondering the question of how COVID-19 testing will be paid for in 2021. U.S. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) said Congress needs to find a way to strike a deal on another coronavirus relief bill to ensure public access to COVID testing and address a number of other issues.

“I’m still optimistic in December we will have a package that is on COVID that will include testing money and vaccine money for the distribution process,” Lankford told NonDoc in an interview Wednesday.

He noted that more than two months ago the Senate sent a $500 billion funding bill to the House, while the House worked a more than $2 trillion version. Both versions included money for COVID testing, vaccine distribution, schools, nonprofits, the Paycheck Protection Program and enhanced unemployment insurance.

“There is agreement on some of those things,” Lankford said. “The hard part is getting agreement on what the right total number is and how far we need to go on other spending on non-COVID-related things.”

He said the Senate also has support for extending use of current CARES Act funding beyond Dec. 31, something states, tribal nations, cities and counties have requested.

Additionally, Lankford wants to make sure federal rules about when insurance should cover COVID testing are in line with congressional intent.

On Oct. 30, Lankford and seven Senate colleagues sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asking for clarification of agency rules that are reportedly resulting in more private health insurance plans denying payment on COVID-19 tests. Lankford said Congress never intended for COVID testing to be limited to only those showing symptoms.

“For Americans who wish to safely return to school and work, access to testing is critical, and they should not have to question whether or not COVID-19 diagnostic or antibody testing is covered by their insurance,” the senators wrote. “No one should have to pay for a test. If someone wants a test, they should be able to get a test, and that test should be covered by insurance without any out-of-pocket costs.”

Stitt said Tuesday that his administration is also talking to private insurance companies about the future of COVID testing in Oklahoma.

“We’re working with the insurance companies and obviously the Trump administration,” he said.

Thompson: Medicaid expansion top budget priority

Roger Thompson, federal money
Senate Appropriations and Budget Chairman Roger Thompson (R-Okemah) listens in a meeting Wednesday, April 3, 2019. (Michael Duncan)

With the Oklahoma Legislature slated to return for its 2021 session Monday, Feb. 1, Thompson said state budget discussions are already ongoing. But owing to the ongoing economic uncertainty surrounding oil and gas and other sectors, Thompson said his hope is simply to achieve a “flat budget” while funding Medicaid expansion.

“It’s going to be a tough budget year. Our No. 1 priority is going to be funding Medicaid expansion that the people voted on and then turned around and voted down [SQ 814] to help us do that,” Thompson said. “So that’s my concern as we move into this next fiscal year.”

Lawmakers cut $1.3 billion from the state budget last session as the economy tanked while the pandemic raged. For the FY 2022 budget, Thompson said he hopes the $164.8 million price tag of Medicaid expansion can be covered without forcing more cuts, something he said would have been easier if SQ 814 had passed.

“I was very frustrated (by SQ 814 failing). That would have been $50 million that we could have used — without touching the corpus of TSET — to help fund Medicaid expansion,” Thompson said. “And now, depending on our income, we may have to look at cutting some services to the people of Oklahoma to pay for what was voted into the Constitution.”

While some voters have expressed a desire for the Legislature to raise taxes — such as the state income tax — to pay for Medicaid expansion, Thompson said he thought there was “zero” chance such a proposal could receive the required 76 votes in the Oklahoma House and 36 votes in the Oklahoma Senate.

“For me personally, I’m not interested in voting on any tax increases, and that seems to be the will of the majority of people I talk to. There is just no discussion about raising taxes.”

Thompson said he thinks state leaders will have more clarity on the budget situation at the end of the fiscal year’s second quarter, which concludes Dec. 31.

“We’ve had so much federal money come in and kind of stimulate our economy,” he said. “It’s beginning to settle down just a little bit, so by the end of the second quarter of our fiscal year we’ll have a better picture.”