Amid Pandemic, Oklahoma Residents Vote to Expand Medicaid Coverage

A measure to expand Medicaid coverage in Oklahoma passed by a slim, 1 percent margin on Tuesday night, as the state grapples with growing concerns over coronavirus in recent weeks.

The measure officially amends the state’s constitution to implement an expansion of the federal health program to residents earning up to 138 percent of the national poverty level — translating to about $35,000 in earned wages for a family of four.

While other states, such as Idaho, Maine, Nebraska and Utah, have passed referenda altering their statutes to expand the popular health program, Oklahoma residents are the first to do so by specifically changing their Constitution. Doing so will require a more difficult and arduous process to undo the change should Republicans, who oppose the expansion in the state, try to alter or end the expansion in some way.

Before the vote on Tuesday, Oklahoma was among 14 states in the U.S. that had not yet expanded Medicaid coverage through the Affordable Care Act. In August, Missouri, another state that has not yet expanded Medicaid, will follow in Oklahoma’s footsteps and vote on a provision that would amend the state’s constitution.

The vote in Oklahoma on Tuesday night was a tight one, with just 50.5 percent of voters supporting the amendment, while 49.5 percent opposed it. Opinions on the expansion fell largely along a city-rural divide, with those in support of the measure more likely to be living in city centers, versus those living in the countryside being more likely to go against it.

Besides being the first in the nation to vote to amend its constitution to expand Medicaid, Oklahoma is also the first state to do so during the coronavirus pandemic. Organizers said that the crisis itself likely convinced many voters of the need to support the measure, as the state has seen infection numbers grow in recent weeks. On the same day that the vote happened, 585 new cases were identified in Oklahoma, a record-high for the state.

Although coronavirus is a concern for many of the state’s residents, others in Oklahoma defied health officials’ recommendations about social distancing to attend a campaign event for President Donald Trump in Tulsa on June 20. Bruce Dart, the director of Tulsa’s City-County Health Department, had urged the campaign to reconsider coming to the state at the time.

“I think it’s an honor for Tulsa to have a sitting president want to come and visit our community, but not during a pandemic,” Dart told The Tulsa World days before the event. “I’m concerned about our ability to protect anyone who attends a large, indoor event, and I’m also concerned about our ability to ensure the president stays safe as well.”

As of Wednesday morning, 13,757 cases of coronavirus have been identified in the state, with 387 having died from the disease so far, according to tracking data from The New York Times.