Upon further reflection, Oklahoma leaders reject federal money for health exchange, state to build insurance information network

 Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin announced Thursday that the Sooner State will not use a $54 million federal grant to design an Oklahoma health insurance exchange. Instead, legislation originating in the House of Representatives will design an information network funded with state and private resources.

 A governing board for the public trust to create the network will consist of seven members and be chaired by the state Commissioner of Insurance, a position now held by John Doak who won election last November.

 On the public trust formed in the envisioned law, a majority of members would come from the private sector rather than government.

 Joining Fallin at the late morning press conference in the Blue Room of the state Capitol were Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman and Speaker of the House Kris Steele. All three speakers emphasized their strongly stated opposition to federal control over health care, the legislation signed into law law year by President Barack Obama.

 The governor avoided any criticism of legislative Republicans or their leaders in today’s brief exchange with reporters.

 House Speaker Kris Steele told reporters the new system will cost “a whole lot less” than $54 million. He said the new approach will incorporate a determination to avoid entanglement with the new federal health care law, which is widely known as “ObamaCare” among both critics and supporters.

 In response to questions, Steele said that although he was not convinced the past grant had unacceptable strings attached, he did not care “who gets the credit.” He restated a determination that the network will be “Oklahoma-based, and designed to meet Oklahoma needs in Oklahoma ways.”

Steele said his goal remained to build an Oklahoma-based information network to help reach the approximately 18 percent of Oklahomans not presently under health insurance.

 In her comments to reporters, Governor Fallin said she wanted, “Once again, to make it very clear how I feel about a federal takeover of health care.” She said she hopes Congress, where she served until November and cast several votes against the elements of “ObamaCare,” will “repeal and replace” the legislation. She repeated past support for state Attorney General Scott Pruitt’s litigation on behalf of the state to strike down the individual mandates in the health care law.

 Until repeal happens or the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the federal law, “it remains the law of the land.” If Oklahoma does not prepare to meet deadlines, including for creation of information systems designed to help consumers find affordable health care, “the feds can and will implement a federal health care exchange designed in Washington.”

 Fallin said last November’s popular vote (http://www.capitolbeatok.com/CustomContentRetrieve.aspx?ID=3338374) of Oklahomans against the federal law fed into her motivation to assure that the state does not come under unacceptable federal mandates.

 Just a few weeks ago, the governor had asked legislators to include the exchange in a cluster of bills she wanted “fast-tracked” to her desk. 

 Today, Fallin expressed appreciation to both Steele and President Pro Tem Bingman for advancing what she termed “a better solution, and an Oklahoma-based solution.” She read from a summary of key points that will be incorporated into the new vehicle.

 In her prepared statement, sent to CapitolBeatOK after this morning’s briefing, Gov. Fallin said, “We have addressed concerns expressed by implementing strict safeguards to prevent the implementation of the federal health care exchange while definitively laying out the framework for a free market-based network that will empower consumers by providing a place for individuals, families and small businesses to shop for affordable, quality health insurance plans.”

 At the press conference, in response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, the chief executive said the measure was not yet in statutory language or ready for distribution. However, a summary of the measure’s anticipated provisions was provided later to reporters and is posted at the end of this story.

 Fallin said the state had not received the first installment of the federal grant and stressed, “We will not receive any federal money” for design of the information network. Fallin also said “no qualified company will be excluded” from the network as it is designed.

 Senator Bingman said he appreciated the speaker and the governor for working with members of the Senate to restart the process. Bingman said the intention was to “engage the private sector” and avoid entanglements in “ObamaCare.”

 Bingman said, “This is a good policy, an Oklahoma plan that will be good for all Oklahomans. We’re going to do this together.” The president pro tem told reporters last week he would work with other state leaders for a program along such lines.

 He expected an Oklahoma-based program to emerge from the process of discussion over the past two weeks. Joining him in support of the new effort at today’s briefing were several Republican senators, including Majority Floor Leader Mike Schulz of Altus, Josh Brecheen of Coalgate, Greg Treat of Oklahoma City, Bill Brown of Broken Arrow (Insurance Committee chairman), Dan Newberry of Tulsa, and Gary Stanislawski of Tulsa. 

 It was Senator Bingman who brought development of an exchange system  to a screeching halt when he announced the upper chamber would not consider the exchange-creating vehicle, House Bill 2130.

 In a prepared statement released after today’s briefing, Bingman said, “This private enterprise network not only offers the people of Oklahoma more options when buying insurance, it will serve as a defensive strategy that protects Oklahoma from the federal health care law.  This is Oklahoma’s solution and federalism at work.  Our plan is based on the principals of the free market; it will not limit participation, it will increase competition among private plans and offer consumers the ability to shop for their best option.”

 In dialogue with reporters, both Steele and Fallin said no first installment of federal money has been received, and that there was no existing contract for design of an exchange.

 Concerning how much state government tax money would be needed to design the network, Speaker Steele said, “That’s what we don’t know yet.” Steele agreed with a reporter’s observation that the major difference between this new approach and the exchange as he had envisioned it is “the use of the federal money.”

 Steele said he had agreed with Bingman that it was important “to avoid even the appearance” of agreement with ObamaCare. In a prepared statement issued about 90 minutes after the press briefing, Steele commented, “Health care coverage is not a one-size-fits-all issue. We need to make all options available to the people. The goal is to equip Oklahomans with the information necessary to make wise decisions. The network will provide a user-friendly tool intended to help people identify a health plan that best fits their individual needs.”

 The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs sent reporters comments on the announcement. Jason Sutton a policy analyst with OCPA, said today’s steps would “protect the people of Oklahoma from the rigid, one-size-fits-all approach of Obamacare. “Oklahoma needs patient-centered health reforms that meet our state’s unique needs. A health insurance exchange could be a useful tool in creating an insurance market based on choice and competition; unfortunately, using the federal grant to build our exchange would handcuff our state to Obamacare. Rejecting those funds is the best decision for Oklahoma.”

 The free market think tank’s president, Michael Carnuccio, commented, “The best way to protect Oklahoma from Obamacare is to not implement Obamacare.” He added the decision showed Falllin and legislative leaders “are willing to put the citizens of Oklahoma above bureaucrats and do what is right for our state.”

 Thursday afternoon, the governor’s staff circulated the following set of talking points about the emerging legislation:

 “Health Insurance Private Enterprise Network

 “The governor and legislative leaders have made it very clear in the legislative language establishing the Health Insurance Private Enterprise Network what Oklahoma will and will not do, which has been the message from the beginning. This will be an Oklahoma plan with Oklahoma values.

 “Oklahoma already was on the path to developing a health insurance exchange before the president’s federal health care bill was ever put into place and the Health Insurance Private Enterprise Network will build on that important step in increasing health insurance access, choice and competition for the citizens of Oklahoma.

·         Creates a public trust governed by a board with a majority membership of private sector stakeholders including representatives from health insurance carriers, agents, providers, employer groups and consumers.

·         Will facilitate access to health insurance and enhance competition, create choice by allowing individuals and small business groups to use pre-tax dollars toward the purchase of health insurance. Would increase portability by allowing employers to offer a defined contribution for employees to purchase their own health insurance.

·         No qualified health insurance carrier in good standing will be denied the ability to participate.

·         The Network will be funded with state and private dollars.”