Strategies emerging to combat health access crisis

Rep. Marcus McEntire

OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahomans soon may be considering dueling health care proposals as lawmakers and supporters of Medicaid expansion say they’re both closing in on their own strategies to address the state’s growing health access crisis.

Amber England, a spokeswoman for the Yes on 802 — Oklahomans Decide Healthcare coalition backing a voter-led Medicaid initiative, said supporters are less than 20,000 signatures short of the roughly 178,000 needed to get the measure on the 2020 ballot. They have until Oct. 28 to finish collecting the remaining signatures.

“There’s a good chance we’re going to finish early because we’ve got so much momentum,” she said. “We feel confident that we’ll not only hit (the 178,000), but exceed it.”

The group’s effort asks voters to expand Medicaid coverage to nearly 200,000 more low-income Oklahomans and bring billions in federal health care dollars back to the state. Oklahoma lawmakers would have to contribute a share of the Medicaid funding.

England said the ballot measure is resonating statewide, particularly in rural areas. Oklahomans say they’re struggling to access health care and their local hospitals have closed or are teetering on the brink, she said.

“People get it because it’s personal,” she said.

A July poll of Oklahomans found the majority of voters supported Medicaid expansion, according to the nonpartisan organization SoonerPoll. Support was highest among Democrats. Independent voters also favored the plan. Republican support for the proposal was mixed with 41.6 percent opposing it and 39.8 percent supporting it, the poll found.

The analysis also found that voters who had a favorable opinion of Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt were more likely to support expansion.

“Everyday hundreds of Oklahomans slip through the cracks when it comes to access to life-saving care because they can’t afford health insurance but yet they make too much money to qualify for Medicaid,” said Finny Mathew, president of Integris Bass Baptist Health Center. “We believe State Question 802 helps close that gap.”

By expanding Medicaid, 36 other states already have made the decision to bring their tax dollars back from Washington, he said.

“If Oklahoma follows suit, we are talking about $1 billion being infused into our economy every year. That benefits everyone, and at the same time thousands of additional Oklahomans will have access to affordable health care,” he said. “There are several rural hospitals in Oklahoma that are just trying to keep their doors open. Expanding Medicaid means bringing dollars back to those communities. Without Medicaid expansion, there is a high likelihood that we will see more rural hospitals close. ”

State Rep. Marcus McEntire, R-Duncan, is co-chairing the Legislature’s working bipartisan group aimed at increasing health care and insurance access. He said the group already has met six times and heard from providers, insurance companies and public health experts.

“It’s been a really good process and an eye-opening process,” he said. “They’ve been very informative to the members of the working group. They are giving us a better idea of whatever plan we’re making.”

He said the group’s members have some good general ideas, but are looking forward to hearing a plan Stitt has promised to release later this month.

“At that time, we will certainly work with the governor,” he said. “Hopefully, our plans are pretty congruent.”

A Stitt spokeswoman said the governor is actively working on a plan for health care, but did not have a confirmed timeline for when he will officially roll it out.

McEntire said he couldn’t discuss the legislative group’s current plan, but he said members will have to make “some really courageous decisions” on how to turn the tide on Oklahomans’ poor health outcomes and low access to care. He said state residents have high smoking rates, poor diets and live sedentary lifestyles.

“I think what is just really clear is just we have a cultural health problem, and that there’s not going to be any silver bullet,” he said. “Whatever happens with Medicaid is not a silver bullet. It’s maybe going to help, but Oklahomans are not, for the most part, healthy people.”

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