Conflict of interest concerns raised during Health Care Authority Board negotiations
The owner of a health care business that receives Medicaid money is also a member of the Oklahoma board that oversees the state's Medicaid program, raising conflict-of-interest questions as lawmakers and Gov. Kevin Stitt hash out options for reducing the influence of state boards.
Alex Yaffe, who is the founder and CEO of Just Kids Pediatrics in the Oklahoma City area, was appointed to the board in 2017 by House Speaker Charles McCall. Just Kids Pediatrics is listed on the Oklahoma Health Care Authority’s Medicaid provider directory.
“It does raise a red flag,” said House Minority Leader Emily Virgin.
Virgin, D-Norman, said she would like to see more attention given to possible conflict of interests on state boards.
But Virgin said her caucus supports keeping intact the structure of the boards, some of which hire and fire agency directors; the boards include citizens appointed by the governor and leaders of the House and Senate.
Stitt wants to take away the power some boards have to hire and fire agency directors. Stitt believes the governor should have that authority, and legislation to grant it to the chief executive have been offered by leaders in the House and Senate.
However, legislative leaders disagree about how the boards should be restructured in the process.
House leadership wants the speaker to have more appointments, according to multiple lawmakers briefed on the negotiations, while Senate leaders would like to reduce the boards to an advisory role, if not remove them entirely.
With negotiations ongoing, multiple lawmakers declined to comment on the record.
House leaders are concerned about maintaining a check on state agencies if boards are restructured. But multiple senators, who support a reduction in board power, believe the Legislature could maintain oversight through Senate confirmation and control over the budget.
Some supporters of restructuring state boards have brought up Yaffe as an example of why the boards should be re-evaluated or at least given a more robust conflict-of-interest policy.
During his State of the State address earlier this month, the new governor made explicit his concerns about some members.
“We will also seek to remove board members across state government when they have conflicts of interest,” Stitt said.
“And we will look to sunset and consolidate boards and commissions where there is overlap and duplication. This is common sense reform.”
Hiring agency directors is a top priority for Stitt, who would like to have legislation on his desk in a matter of weeks, according to officials within his administration.
House Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, who has been involved in the negotiations over restructuring boards said Yaffe was not an example of a conflict of interest.
“You want people who understand how the system works and Alex is doing a good job on that board,” said Echols, R-Oklahoma City.
When asked for comment, McCall’s office referred to a state statute that requires one of the speaker’s two appointments to be a person who works in the health care field.
In addition to managing the clinic, Yaffe is also an attorney at the Oklahoma City firm Foshee and Yaffe, the same firm where Rep. Chris Kannady, R-Oklahoma City, works.
Yaffe also gave nearly $30,000 to state candidates in 2018, according to state contribution reports.
Yaffe said any effort to make his status on the board a conflict of interest is “an attempt to create a story where none exists and is a baseless political attack by those trying to advance themselves or some subversive agenda.”
Yaffe said day-to-day management of his clinic is handled by a team of manager, not himself.
The clinic is contracted with the state Health Care Authority through a non-negotiable provider contract, Yaffe said, meaning his votes on the board have no impact on his business.
“In my term on the OHCA Board, the Conflicts Committee has never found a conflict to exist on measures before the Board for which I would consider nor suggested I recuse,” Yaffe said.
Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat said he remains optimistic about the direction of the negotiations over board structures.
“Conversations between the governor, speaker, and myself occur on a daily basis,” Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said in a statement. “I am encouraged by our shared vision for the state and am optimistic about this legislative session.”
Echols echoed Treat’s thoughts.
“To me, we are all working together better than at any time in the past,” Echols said.