OKLAHOMA CITY – The Oklahoma Legislature should move quickly to expand Medicaid, using the extra funds for health care coverage and to address criminal justice issues, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma said Monday.

By expanding Medicaid coverage ACLU Oklahoma leader Ryan Kiesel said the state would receive millions in much-needed cash which could be used to increase mental health coverage, a key component in modernizing Oklahoma’s criminal justice system.

In December, Oklahoma Secretary of Finance Preston Doerflinger said state revenue for remainder of FY 2016 was expected to be about $157 million short. That action required the state to cut agency budgets by three percent beginning this month.

“The three percent reduction will reduce general revenue allocations by $176.9 million for the remainder of FY 2016. General revenue allocations needed to be reduced by at least $157 million to end the projected shortfall,” a media release by Doerflinger’s office said.

State lawmakers said they expect a budget hole of more than $800 million for the upcoming legislative session.

Kiesel said the lack of revenue would likely take up most of the legislature’s attention for the session. He said lawmakers “should explore every option” to generate revenue and, at the same time, take steps toward reforming the state’s criminal justice system.

ACLU Oklahoma Executive Director Ryan Kiesel
ACLU Oklahoma Executive Director Ryan Kiesel

One way to do that, he said, was to expand Medicaid coverage. Kiesel pointed to a 2013 ACLU study that called on states to expand Medicaid coverage as a way to make communities safer. In the study, entitled Healthcare Not Handcuffs, the ACLU called for Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act.

“By dramatically expanding and funding healthcare coverage to millions of currently uninsured people, the ACA represents a remarkable opportunity for criminal justice and drug policy reform advocates to advance efforts for policies promoting safe and healthy communities, without excessive reliance on the criminal justice solutions that have become so prevalent under the War on Drugs,” the study said.

According to the study, the expansion of the federal Medicaid programs represents an opportunity to “recast substance use disorders and drug use as a matter for public health rather than criminal justice.”

“This could be a huge tool to help fight crime and combat drug-related crimes,” Kiesel said.

He said a dramatic expansion of healthcare coverage would allow Oklahomans struggling with drug use to obtain community-based care and treatment, instead of incarceration.

Kiesel said state officials could harness the power of the ACA as low-cost and effective alternative to incarceration for defendants with substance use or mental health disorders.

A report, released by the Tulsa-based Oklahoma Policy Institute, indicated the state would see between $13 and $17 billion in new revenue over the next 10 years.

In 2012 alone, the report said, the state of Oklahoma paid $896 million in incentives to attract private businesses to the state. That amount is more than the ten-year total cost to the state for expanding Medicaid, a cost estimated at $689 million.

Estimates by a Leavitt Partners report – a report commissioned by the state – show that expanding Medicaid coverage in Oklahoma would save the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services about $340 million over 10 years and save the Oklahoma Department of Corrections almost $120 million during the same time.

“Our state faces a serious financial crisis,” Kiesel, a former member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, said. “We don’t have the money to pay our bills. Expanding Medicaid coverage would help solve that problem and, at the same time, take steps toward reforming our criminal justice system.”