OKLAHOMA CITY — Supporters of a citizen-led ballot initiative to expand Medicaid said enough signatures are gathered to get the measure before voters next year.

Amber England, a spokeswoman for the Yes on 802 — Oklahomans Decide Healthcare coalition, said supporters already have the necessary 178,000 signatures, but she said they’d continue collecting until the Oct. 28 deadline.

England said there are still opponents who are “trying to do everything in their power to stop us from delivering health care to 200,000 Oklahomans.”

“We can’t afford to just squeak by,” England said. “We’re going to demonstrate that we have a mandate from the people of Oklahoma.”

The group’s effort asks voters to expand Medicaid coverage to nearly 200,000 more low-income Oklahomans who can’t afford health insurance, yet make too much to qualify for Medicaid. Advocates say it will bring billions in federal health care dollars back to the state. Oklahoma lawmakers would have to contribute a share of the Medicaid funding.

Supporters said the measure is resonating statewide, particularly in rural areas. Oklahomans say they’re struggling to access health care and their local hospitals have closed or are teetering on the brink.

The effort benefited from enthusiastic grassroots support, England said. More than 800 volunteers collected signatures.

Volunteer Cindy Alexander, of Stillwater, mobilized a group of Oklahomans to collect signatures from small towns and rural communities.

“We found the public generally very eager to sign the petition,” she told supporters during a telephone call Thursday night.

Alexander said she met a woman who works as many hours as she’s able, but still has no health insurance and can’t afford groceries. Alexander said she later encountered the woman riding her bike to work.

A volunteer signature-gatherer in Muskogee circulated petitions at churches and stopped by businesses located in strip malls on her way home from work, Alexander said.

Despite working three jobs, including overnight as a tollbooth operator, the woman falls in the insurance gap, Alexander said.

In a statement, Patti Davis, president of the Oklahoma Hospital Association, which is backing the initiative, said she’s encouraged but not surprised that so many Oklahomans were eager to sign the petition.

Hospitals across the state also helped gather signatures.

“They have found their communities, in every corner of the state, to be greatly supportive of letting the voters decide on this issue,” she said.

However, Davis said it is important to exceed the required number of signatures in order to withstand any challenge. Hospital officials are strongly encouraging volunteers to keep up their signature-gathering efforts over the next few weeks.

Dave Bond, vice president for advocacy with the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, said the organization plans to wait until Medicaid supporters turn everything in before determining its next step.

The conservative-leaning think tank has concerns about Medicaid expansion.

“It potentially would put over half a million able-bodied adults without any dependents onto a massive taxpayer-funded welfare program,” Bond said. “That’s an awfully big step for Oklahoma taxpayers to take.”

Still, Bond said he wasn’t shocked Medicaid expansion supporters collected 178,000 signatures. He said other citizen-led ballot initiatives have gathered far more in recent years.

Also, just because supporters say they have enough signatures doesn’t mean they’ll automatically make the ballot, he said.

“We’ve seen previous ballot initiatives in Oklahoma get tossed out because courts have ruled not enough signatures are valid,” Bond said.

The organization unsuccessfully challenged the wording of the ballot measure earlier this year in the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

“I think the threat of State Question 802 has been pretty pivotal in our work this entire time,” said state Rep. Marcus McEntire, R-Duncan, who is co-chairing a bipartisan legislative working group probing health care reform.

“I think it was the catalyst to move the Legislature to look into a possible waiver scenario that we would have more room to be nimble,” he said.

McEntire said the ballot measure could tie the Legislature’s hands if approved by voters.

Besides having to expand coverage, the state couldn’t add any extra requirements on the expansion population unless they also applied to those currently covered, he said.

McEntire said lawmakers would continue to work on developing an alternative plan.

He said he expects the House to take up Medicaid legislation during the upcoming session.

Legislators are still waiting to see the health care proposal from Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, he said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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