Oklahoma’s Medicaid director announces resignation (The Oklahoman)

By Jaclyn Cosgrove and Rick Green

The state Medicaid director announced his resignation Monday in a letter to the agency’s board, noting it was the “right time to explore options in the private sector.”

Oklahoma Health Care Authority CEO Nico Gomez, 44, told the board in his letter that he was stepping down after 20 years of public service, the past 16 years spent at the authority.

Gomez has been CEO of the authority for almost four years. His base salary is $152,000, which doesn’t include longevity pay.

The health care authority administers Oklahoma’s Medicaid program, SoonerCare, which provides health care services to 800,000 low-income Oklahomans, including 523,000 children. Thousands of Oklahomans with disabilities and serious medical conditions depend on the program.

The authority board is expected to discuss his resignation at its next meeting Sept. 8.

Gomez said he would like for his last day as authority CEO to be Sept. 30.

Gomez did not respond to a request for comment from The Oklahomanbut provided a written statement:

“I am incredibly grateful for the people at the Oklahoma Health Care Authority and the support they have given me throughout my career. I love the employees and this board. They are living examples of people loving and serving their neighbors unconditionally.

“As an agency, OHCA cares for the most vulnerable among us: children, the elderly, the sick and the poor. The work being done here matters, and is worthy of the continued support of the state and our lawmakers. I am proud to have served and led an agency that is saving lives and supporting our citizens and our community. I firmly believe OHCA has a strong board, a talented leadership team and employees who will continue to boldly move forward in serving the people of Oklahoma. Without question, the dedication and commitment of OHCA employees represent the true meaning of ‘Oklahoma Standard.'”

Gov. Mary Fallin said in a statement that Gomez was an inspirational leader.

“Nico has been intent on developing Oklahoma-based solutions to expand and improve access to quality health care for low-income residents, children, the elderly and disabled,” Fallin said. “He has worked in public service for 20 years, and I wish him the best of luck as he ventures into the private sector.”

The past few years have been especially difficult at the health care authority.

Over the past two years, the agency has lost more than $868 million in state and federal dollars, as a result of state budget cuts and losing matching federal money as a result of those cuts.

The agency’s board has approved repeated rate cuts, paying medical professionals less and less for the services they provide to thousands of low-income Oklahomans.

David Blatt, Oklahoma Policy Institute executive director, said the news about Gomez’s resignation was disappointing, given the respect Gomez has from not only health care leaders and advocates but also from both political parties.

“Nico has filled one of the toughest jobs in state government with integrity and commitment to his agency and to the clients in the Medicaid program, and this is a very big loss,” Blatt said.

In late March, Gomez announced that he would ask the agency’s board to consider a 25 percent provider rate cut in response to the state budget crisis.

Shortly after that announcement, Gomez proposed a solution: the Medicaid Rebalancing Act of 2020.

The plan would have raised an estimated $182 million from a cigarette-tax increase, providing enough money to stabilize the Medicaid program and likely not cut provider rates; created a new Insure Oklahoma plan, a state-based insurance plan, for low-income adults; and moved thousands of pregnant mother and children off Medicaid and onto private health insurance plans.

It was seen by many as an alternative to Medicaid expansion. Oklahoma is one of about 20 states that have chosen not to expand eligibility for their Medicaid programs, a key element of the Affordable Care Act.

To promote the plan, Gomez made an eight-city tour in April across Oklahoma, hosting public forums at local libraries, health facilities and college campuses.

However, momentum for the plan stalled at the Legislature, especially after support for the cigarette sales tax dwindled at the Capitol.

Lawmakers familiar with the state Medicaid system acknowledged this was likely frustrating for Gomez, given the effort he put into the plan.

“I know he worked hard to come up with an expansion plan that he hoped would be acceptable to the Legislature without the full-blown expansion that the Obama plan called for,” said state Rep. Doug Cox, a Republican lawmaker who works as a physician in Grove. “I’m sure he was frustrated by that, but it’s probably not the main reason he is resigning.”

Sen. Ervin Yen, R-Oklahoma City, said he was also disappointed that Gomez was leaving the authority — but he didn’t blame him for resigning.

“Nico is a good guy who has been trying to do what he believes is the right thing,” Yen, an Oklahoma City physician, said. “He got a lot of pushback on his Medicaid rebalancing act. A lot of folks thought that was Medicaid expansion. I didn’t look at it that way. We were actually taking people off Medicaid and moving them into another program using private funds.”


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