Medicaid expansion will improve mental health in Oklahoma (Guest Post)

Medicaid expansion is one of the best things to happen for our state, not only for the physical health of Oklahomans, but also for their mental health. On June 30, 2020, Oklahoma voters approved State Question 802 to expand Medicaid eligibility to adults between the ages of 18 and 64 whose income is 138% of the federal poverty level or below. Oklahomans began applying for Medicaid on June 1 this year, and coverage began on July 1. Already, more than 135,000 adults have been approved for benefits through Medicaid expansion. This includes applications that have been reprocessed by the Oklahoma Health Care Authority (OHCA) that have been recently denied and those who are covered under a different program. These momentous changes will help newly eligible Oklahomans, many of whom previously lacked access to health care, begin using their coverage as soon as possible. This will go a long way towards ensuring that Medicaid expansion delivers on its full potential. 

The passage of Medicaid expansion and opening up of enrollment in June are positive steps in improving Oklahoma’s ranking as 41st in the nation for adult mental health. More than 200,000 Oklahomans are newly eligible for affordable health coverage, including treatment for mental health and substance use disorders.  This should assist some of the 92,000 uninsured adults with a mental illness and a number of the 248,000 Oklahomans who had a substance use disorder in the past year.

While the state has always had a system for the indigent, it has never been appropriately resourced to serve everyone in need. Therefore, many people didn’t have immediate access to care that would help prevent them from reaching a crisis point. If eligible people enroll in Medicaid expansion, they can receive assessment and treatment before it turns into a crisis involving law enforcement, incarceration, emergency rooms, or homelessness. Not only will this save lives, but it will keep families together, reduce trauma from interactions with systems ill-equipped to handle mental health crises, help people maintain employment, and save taxpayer dollars by prioritizing less expensive preventative care over crisis services. 

Additionally, in the midst of COVID-19, ensuring access to behavioral health care has never been so important. Projections show the pandemic will likely increase deaths due to opioid overdoses, thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts, deaths by suicide, and rates of alcohol and drug addiction. In provisional drug overdose death counts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Oklahoma has nearly a 21% increase in people who died from an overdose from 2019 to 2020, and this is likely an underestimation. Adults covered under Medicaid expansion are more likely to receive substance use disorder treatment and have better overall health, which will help thousands of vulnerable Oklahomans as they regain their sense of stability following these trying times. 

Many Oklahomans have been going without necessary health care, particularly mental health care, for years. Some of the individuals who are now eligible for Medicaid expansion may not know about expansion at all. Our state will only fully realize the benefits of Medicaid expansion if all eligible individuals are able to access coverage. As a community — service providers, religious institutions, family members and friends — we must work together to connect our friends and neighbors to health care. You can apply for yourself or help someone else apply at, and assistance is available by calling 1-800-987-7767. By increasing access to care for Oklahomans with mental illness, we will see more stability in employment, housing, and families; less utilization of crisis services; and improved mental and physical health outcomes.

Whitney-1-150x150About the author

Whitney Cipolla serves as an Advocacy Specialist with Mental Health Association Oklahoma.


The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

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