OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Democratic leaders in the Oklahoma Legislature said Monday that Gov. Mary Fallin's decision not to expand the state's Medicaid program was politically motivated and that more public awareness is needed among the roughly 200,000 low-income Oklahomans who would benefit from the expansion.
Fallin announced in November that Oklahoma would reject the Medicaid expansion allowed under the health care overhaul law, citing the cost to both the state and federal governments.
During her State of the State remarks Monday, Fallin said the proposal to expand Medicaid for residents who do not have insurance was "unaffordable." But Democratic leaders said Fallin's decision was based on political opposition to the health care law and its mandate that all Americans purchase private health care insurance or pay a penalty.
"It was simply a political decision," said the state House's Democratic leader, Rep. Scott Inman of Oklahoma City. Inman said expanding the program would attract about $3.6 billion in federal funds for the state's Medicaid program and help stabilize rural hospitals, creating jobs and expanding health care coverage to some of Oklahoma's neediest citizens.
The chairman of the House Democratic caucus, Rep. Jerry McPeak of Warner, said politics should not be part of decisions that impact the health care of Oklahomans.
"She's sure got her heels set that she's not going to do it," McPeak said.
The expansion would have allowed Oklahomans earning up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $30,000 for a family of four, to be eligible for Medicaid coverage. Under current law, only children in families earning up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level are Medicaid eligible.
During her State of the State speech Monday, Fallin said a report from the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured found that expanding Medicaid would cost the state $689 million between 2013 and 2022.
"Expanding Medicaid as proposed by the president would mean that a huge sum of money would be diverted from other priorities, like education and public safety, as well as existing health care programs," Fallin said.
She said the state already expects to enroll 60,000 Medicaid eligible Oklahomans in the next few years to avoid taxes and fines imposed by the health care law and she has proposed a $40 million increase for the state's Medicaid provider, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, to meet the costs of the additional enrollees as well as the rising costs of medical treatment and fixed expenses.
But Inman said he believes Fallin is overstating the costs and that the benefits of expanding Medicaid far outweigh any costs.
The Senate's Democratic leader, Sen. Sean Burrage of Claremore, said he believes it's a bad idea not to expand Medicaid and that more people need to become familiar with the issue.
"We are trying to raise public awareness," Burrage said. He said many Oklahomans who would become eligible for Medicaid under the proposed changes are not aware of Fallin's decision and its consequences to them.
Rejection of the Medicaid expansion plan has been criticized by hospitals and health officials who say the cost of caring for Oklahoma's uninsured already is falling on hospitals in the form of uncompensated care and leading to higher health care costs for the insured.
"I think it's disingenuous," Burrage said.
A group known as the Coalition for Medicaid Expansion plans to rally at the State Capitol on Tuesday. Organizers say they hope to attract as many 500 people to demonstrate support for expanding Medicaid.