OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- The governing board of the agency that oversees the Medicaid program in Oklahoma selected a longtime employee on Thursday as its new chief executive at an annual salary of $152,000, plus incentives.
The Oklahoma Health Care Authority Board voted unanimously to appoint Nico Gomez, 41, to head the agency that has about 470 employees and an annual operating budget of more than $5 billion.
"We have over a million Oklahomans that we're going to care for during this next year, and my primary goal is to make sure we are taking care of them in a very responsible and appropriate way," Gomez said. "We have more than 500,000 kids in the program. What a tremendous responsibility that is, because that's over half the kids in the state that are reliant upon us being able to do our job right."
Gomez began with the agency as a public information officer in 2000 and currently serves as its deputy chief executive officer. He will begin his job as the CEO on Feb. 1.
Board Chairman Ed McFall said Gomez stood out among the 40 applicants because of his experience with the agency and his reputation among state lawmakers.
"He's very knowledgeable about Medicaid, which at this point in time is just absolutely necessary. The other thing about Nico is that he has an excellent reputation with the Legislature and the governor's office," McFall said. "To try and bring in somebody at this point in time would be very difficult, with the Legislature fixing to convene and all the things that we're faced with at this point in time, he was by far and away the best candidate."
Gomez will replace longtime CEO Mike Fogarty, who will retire in March.
"He's got a commitment to the mission of this organization," Fogarty said. "He's got a passion for the people of Oklahoma and what it means when the difference in whether they live or die is whether they have access to quality health care."
The Health Care Authority is responsible for overseeing the federal Medicaid program for low-income and certain disabled Oklahomans, called Soonercare. The agency typically has about 800,000 people in its program, about 65 percent of those children. The agency has an annual budget of $5.13 billion, which includes about $907 million in state funding.
Gov. Mary Fallin issued a statement Thursday in which she cited Gomez's "valuable experience and knowledge."
"I look forward to working with Nico and the OHCA on Oklahoma-based solutions to expand and improve access to quality health care for low-income Oklahomans, children, the elderly and the disabled."
Fallin late last year decided to reject an expansion of the Medicaid program that would have extended health coverage to an estimated 180,000 low-income Oklahomans who are uninsured. The decision was celebrated by tea party groups and conservative legislators, but criticized by hospital officials and health care professionals who must absorb the costs of the nearly 20 percent of uninsured Oklahomans who often seek health care services at emergency rooms and are unable to pay.
The board on Thursday approved a $500,000 consulting contract with Utah-based Leavitt Partners to analyze and make recommendations for developing an Oklahoma-based plan for increasing health insurance coverage.
Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy