Gov. Kevin Stitt (left) and Secretary of Health Kevin Corbett discuss Medicaid funding for hospitals in December 2022. Photo credit: Office of Gov. Kevin Stitt

Health secretary’s ouster gives a look into “frustration” between the Senate and Gov. Stitt

The vote is the latest in a turf war between the Legislature and Gov. Kevin Stitt's office

  • Catherine Sweeney

The governor and the Legislature have been at odds over the state’s Medicaid agency, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority. That fight came to a head last week, when lawmakers booted the agency director from his Secretary of Health position. StateImpact’s Catherine Sweeney talks with Tres Savage, the editor of nonprofit outlet NonDoc, about what led to the ouster.

SWEENEY: Yeah, the legislature didn’t confirm Secretary of Health Kevin Corbett to come back. And that kind of is just this natural endpoint after all this drama that’s been going on for months. Just kind of wanted to do a check-in about all of it — where it started. There’s like six stories you’ve written about the agency in the past two weeks.

SAVAGE: He’s still the director of the Medicaid agency, but Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, the leader of the Senate was asked, you know, what brought this about? You know, really said that there was a multitude of things that had happened.

Oklahoma has been a little bit behind the curve in terms of adopting a health information exchange by which medical records for patients are shared among providers. It’s real complicated. It’s kind of boring. But it got rather contentious earlier this session.

But there became an outcry among licensed professional therapists, professional counselors, social workers regarding their implementation of this HIE. A lot of the mental health provider world and even some patients, you know, felt very…

SWEENEY: Apprehensive.

SAVAGE: Yeah. They questioned, you know, is this appropriate? What are the guidelines here? It was the sort of question of confidentiality regarding, you know, behavioral health care patients.  It was one step of what has become some drama at the health care Authority.

The next step really was that the legislature sort of came out with a bill … essentially tying up $600 million of what is called FMAP money, which is the federal matching percentage.

SWEENEY: States and the feds split the costs on Medicaid.

SAVAGE: Right. And it’s reassessed on a regular basis. And so there had been enhanced FMAP for different things, including specifically through the pandemic. And OHCA had sort of this additional pot of money.

And the legislative budget leaders sort of got pitched with these sort of ideas for how to use this money. And they begin to sort of wonder, is the Health Care Authority going to do this? Are they going to set this up?

SWEENEY: From what I understood, the agency was like, “We have saved this money.” And Gov. Stitt was like, “They’ve been good stewards, so they should get to use this money appropriately for health outcomes.” And the Legislature was like, “No, we get to say how this is spent.”

SAVAGE: Yeah, just and that’s sort of a standard fight between this administration and the legislature. To your point, I guess I should mention that this bill that the legislature passed tying up the $600 million, the governor vetoed it. Talking to budget leaders, the Senate was very unhappy with the governor’s veto message, I believe Treat … basically said it was disingenuous, basically said it was not particularly true.

Again, this has marked the Stitt administration at various times over the last four years, you know, sometimes the legislature feels like their authority is being usurped,

All of this sort of culminated — and I know this conversation we’re having is not about education, but this year at the legislature, everything’s about education because that’s sort of the quote unquote, big boulder that they had to put in place before they can do anything else on the budget and make all these other decisions.

SWEENEY: Stitt is vetoing everything in the meantime.


SWEENEY: So all this pressure is being put on them.

SAVAGE: He started vetoing Senate bills with a stern message, saying until the Senate acts, you know, in line with our plan, I’m going to veto these unrelated bills. And in response to that, the Senate basically said we will exert our authority. They went back and they reminded everybody that they have the constitutional authority to advise and consent on nominations that the governor puts forward. In particular, cabinet secretaries.

So, you know, Treat said quote, “There had been frustration building in my caucus for a while,” and he hinted at a few things like we talked about the the the potential use of that $600 million of FMAP carryover funds, the health information exchange roll out.

But you know, the the good news is I suppose compared to where we were, Catherine, when we used to work up here all the time together, they used to have fights when there was no money.

SWEENEY: Right? In 2017, 2018, billion dollar shortfalls. Cutting everything.

SAVAGE: No money at all. Everybody’s fighting. It’s all contentious. And I did not think that five or six years later we’d be here and it would be even more contentious when now they have a lot of money and they’re fighting over how to spend it.