“If we’re not being cooperative and all the rhetoric is hostile, then that’s going to be a real barrier to providing information to people,” said David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a state policy think tank. “There’s a lot of important outreach that needs to happen before January 1, 2014, and it’s going to be extremely difficult to do that when you have state leaders standing there saying, ‘Over our dead bodies.’ ”
Resistance remains strong in other states as well, with some governors promising to opt out of parts of the law. Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, has said he will act to repeal the law as his first priority if elected president. But it is unclear how far opponents can turn back the clock.
Many experts say the tax penalty for not having insurance — which starts at $95 and gradually increases to $695 or 2.5 percent of a person’s income — is too low to be sufficient motivation on its own.
In Massachusetts, a similar health insurance mandate enacted during Romney’s term as governor succeeded partly because it was uncontroversial, and because government agencies, nonprofit groups and health-care providers promoted it widely, even at Boston Red Sox games. Less than 5 percent of the state’s population is now uninsured.
But that was Massachusetts, a liberal-leaning state where residents are accustomed to more government regulation. No one is quite sure how it will work elsewhere.
“There’s a sense in Oklahoma, and I’m not sure if this is peculiar to this state, but we don’t like people telling us what to do,” said Chuck Mai, a spokesman for AAA Oklahoma. “We know what we should do. We should buckle our safety belt every time we drive. We should drive sober. And we should have insurance on our vehicle. But having our law telling you to do those things sometimes has an adverse effect.”
Although auto insurance is required for all drivers under state law, an estimated 20 to 30 percent in Oklahoma go without it, Mai said. (In Massachusetts, about 5 percent of drivers are uninsured, the lowest rate in the country, according to the Insurance Research Institute, which last calculated the numbers in 2009.)
Lawyers and industry groups believe the low car insurance rates in Oklahoma are partly because of the sizable population of illegal immigrants. But a number of people sign up for insurance long enough to register their cars, and then, driven by poverty or a devil-may-care attitude, immediately stop paying their insurance bills.
Offenders face a $230 fine and suspension of their driver’s licenses. Police recently gained access to a database of uninsured drivers’ license plates, but the state legislature rejected a bill that would have allowed police to pull over drivers solely for insurance violations. Even the state’s insurance commissioner opposed it.