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Dealing With Oklahoma’s Uninsured

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) Oklahoma still has 650,000 citizens without health insurance, but Gov. Brad Henry hopes to chip away at the problem with two bills winding their way through the 2007 Legislature.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Oklahoma has the fourth highest rate of uninsured residents in the country, based on three-year averages from 2003 to 2005. Only Texas, New Mexico and Florida have higher rates of uninsured residents.

An estimated 146,000 of Oklahoma's uninsured are children.

What is known as the All Kids Act would make 42,000 more children eligible for Medicaid funding, said Nico Gomez, spokesman for the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.

The All Kids Act, by Sen. Tom Adeleson, D-Tulsa, is a top priority of Senate Democrats. It passed a Senate committee last week and now goes to the floor for consideration.

Meanwhile, a measure to expand Henry's "Insure Oklahoma" program, which helps small businesses to provide insurance for their employees, was approved by the House Public Health Committee.

The future of the two bills is uncertain, however.

When Henry announced his health care package in late January, both House Speaker Lance Cargill, R-Harrah, and Senate Co-President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma, were less than enthusiastic about it.

Cargill said he was reluctant to expand the Insure Oklahoma program because it had been oversold and "has under-delivered."

Coffee said the state has a tight budget year and he will be cautious about expanding any programs.

On Friday, Coffee said he remains concerned about the potential cost of Henry's two proposals, but was willing to work with Henry and his legislative colleagues to find common ground on health care issue.

As Henry pushes his program, House Republicans also have offered a health care plan that would allow state employees to get a tax break for setting up "health savings accounts." Only individuals that are not state workers now qualify for the program.

Critics say health savings accounts are not realistic for many families who do not have extra money to buy health insurance or save for medical expenses.

Medicaid would cover more children under Adeleson's bill by making families eligible who make 300 percent of the federal poverty line, or $60,000. Oklahoma families now can't earn over 185 percent of the poverty line, or about $37,000.

Henry argues the cost of expanding Medicaid coverage for children is negligible, compared to the benefits of the program. Under his plan, the state would put up $8.5 million and draw down almost $30 million in federal matching funds.

Henry's bill to expand the program, introduced by Sen. Andrew Rice, D-Oklahoma City, actually died in the Senate Rule Committee last week, but Adelson's bill was approved by the Senate Appropriation Committee, keeping the issue alive.

Under the Insure Oklahoma program, the state pays 60 percent of the cost of health insurance premiums of employers with 25 or fewer employees. Employers pay 25 percent and employees pay 15 percent.

For every dollar the state invests in the program, it gets about $2 in federal money.

A bill passing a House committee would increase from 185 percent to 200 percent of the poverty line the amount working families could make to qualify for the program.

Henry says the program has been hailed by the Bush administration as an innovative program to reduce the number of uninsured people. But critics say it has not lived up to expectations.

Besides expanding the pool of people who qualify, Henry has announced the Health Care Authority will work with other agencies to better market the program.

"We don't want the reason people aren't participating in the program to be because they don't know about it," Gomez said.

He said the latest figures show that 1,643 people are covered under the program, with 787 small businesses participating in 72 of the state's 77 counties.

Going to 200 percent of the poverty line could add 12,000 to the program, Gomez said.

Paul Sund, spokesman for Henry, said the governor realizes "we've got a mountain of a problem and we're just trying to chip away at it.

"We're not under any illusion that we can pass one bill and solve what is a national problem of the uninsured. The health care problem did not happen overnight and it will not be solved overnight.

"The Insure Oklahoma program may start out helping a few thousand people, but over time, hopefully, it will be tens of thousands of people who are helped."

He said Henry's plan to expand Medicaid coverage might affect less than 10 percent of the total amount of uninsured Oklahomans, "but if you measure it in how it can change the lives of individual kids, it's a pretty big deal."
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