Oklahoma high court upholds Medicaid expansion ballot initiative

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OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Oklahoma Supreme Court has upheld a ballot initiative championed by a group seeking a public vote on Medicaid expansion for tens of thousands of low-income Oklahomans.

On Tuesday morning, the Oklahoma Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether the group Oklahomans Decide Healthcare can proceed with gathering the roughly 178,000 signatures needed to get the question on the ballot. This was challenged by the think-tank Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) which argued the proposed ballot language didn't accurately describe what the measure does, was legally inadequate, and potentially unconstitutional.

"The gist of the petition states that Medicaid would be expanded to cover adults at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty level," said OCPA attorney Travis Jett. "The federal Medicaid laws require expansion to 138 percent."

Melanie Rughani with Crowe & Dunlevy represents Oklahomans Decide Healthcare. According to Rughani, the additional five percent stems from a complex federal formula that "can and has already changed".

"How we calculate someone’s income for the purposes of Medicaid is a very complex issue," Rughani said. "I think 138 would be frankly, inaccurate because the 5 percent income disregard could change tomorrow, could change between now and the time of the vote or after."

OCPA president Jonathan Small insisted Oklahomans "deserve to know the truth about the petition", adding the average cost of Medicaid expansion is about $5,800 per person.

"To give you an idea, the difference between 133 and 138 percent based on census data is somewhere between 13,000 and 18,000 people. That’s a significant difference," Small said. "This basically puts taxpayers and the most vulnerable in a straight jacket in Oklahoma by putting in such a large welfare entitlement for single able-bodied adults in the constitution."

A written opinion from the court issued Tuesday afternoon states "the proposed Medicaid expansion is not misleading and is sufficient", also adding "the language of the gist is clear".

Amber England, a spokesperson for Oklahomans Decide Healthcare, tells News 4 they expect to begin collecting signatures later this summer. Hours before the written opinion was issued, England said the opposition's claims of deceit and fraud were an "absolute overreach".

"All our gist says today is that we are complying with the federal statute that allows for expansion of Medicaid. Largely what you’re seeing today is political antics from the opposition who do not want this to go in front of Oklahoma voters because they know, that Oklahoma voters want to decide for themselves if we should decide to expand Medicaid and bring those federal dollars home from Washington D.C.," she said. "We’re not recapturing those dollars now. 36 other states are. That’s money that could help save our rural hospitals, to invest in our local communities to create jobs and to help almost 200,000 Oklahomans get healthcare that they’re being denied today."

England said they will begin collecting signatures later this summer. Once the process officially starts, they will have 90 days to collect all necessary signatures.

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