YES ON 802 MEDICAID EXPANSION

Amber England, Yes on 802 campaign manager, speaks in front of Medicaid expansion supporters before they delivered petitions with about 313,000 signatures last month. NATE BILLINGS/The Oklahoman

One year from today, Oklahomans will be able to set their own health care destiny.

They’ll get a chance to rescue the state’s rural hospitals and provide the economy with an able-bodied workforce.

They’ll get a chance to recover about $1 billion a year in available health care funding that we have refused for more than a decade.

They’ll get a chance to say they’re sick and tired of being kept sick and poor by their own political leadership.

Last month, the Yes of 802 campaign turned in its initiative petition to bring Medicaid expansion to the state.

According to campaign officials, the effort obtained the signatures of about 313,000 registered voters, an Oklahoma initiative petition record and nearly 178,000 more than is required by law.

That’s a pretty good gauge of what Oklahomans think about their elected leaders’ refusal to accept about a billion dollars a year in federal funding to improve the state’s health care situation.

If ultimately approved by voters, the measure would rewrite the Oklahoma Constitution to require acceptance of the federal funding, which would provide Medicaid coverage for working-age U.S. citizens living in the state who earn less than 138% of the federal poverty level.

The state’s share of the cost for the new Medicaid clients would be 10%. A dime gets a dollar. You can’t get such a deal anywhere else.

Mind you, Oklahomans are already paying the “Obamacare” taxes to fund Medicaid expansion. We’re just not getting any of the benefits. Oklahomans are paying taxes so that poor people in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Colorado get Medicaid coverage. Taxpayers in those states are paying taxes so that we can have it too, but, against all reason, we won’t take it.

As a result, our rural hospitals are on life support. Six rural hospitals have closed since 2010; another 17 are at high risk of closing, and 54% operate with a negative operating profit margin.

Why? The working poor of Oklahoma can’t afford health insurance.

Some 14.2% of Oklahomans don’t have medical coverage, a rate second only to Texas, which is also a Medicaid expansion holdout. According to the latest estimates from the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 452,000 working-age Oklahomans are uninsured.

Of course, those people still get sick.

They delay medical care until it reaches a crisis — when a nagging shortness of breath becomes pneumonia or congestive heart failure — then they go to hospital emergency rooms, the most expensive medical treatment alternative, but the only place that cannot refuse them service.

When those bills go unpaid, the hospitals either eat the costs or they pass them along to their insured patients.

Of course, if you live in Tulsa, you don’t have to worry about the availability of health care in rural Oklahoma. Just don’t leave town. Ever.

The lack of health care stunts Oklahoma’s economy and increases the tax burden on the middle class. Sick people can’t work. They can’t go to school. If they don’t work, they don’t pay taxes and they’re much more likely to require government services.

Imagine the economic impact of an additional $1 billion a year in Oklahoma’s economy, money that will be spent hiring more doctors, nurses and caregivers? When Arkansas accepted Medicaid expansion, the tax revenue growth was so substantial that the state was able to cut its sales tax on food.

Don’t believe anyone who tells you the state can’t afford Affordable Care Act money. We can’t afford to continue refusing it.

Unless Gov. Kevin Stitt puts State Question 802 on a special election ballot or it falls prey to a legal challenge, it will go on the Nov. 3, 2020, general election ballot.

That’s one year from today.


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Editorial Pages Editor

Wayne is the editorial pages editor of the Tulsa World and a political columnist. A fourth-generation Oklahoman, he previously served as the World’s city editor for 13 years and as a reporter at the state Capitol of four years. Phone: 918-581-8308