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Cutting The Number Of Uninsured Oklahomans

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The Oklahoma Senate on Tuesday voted to increase by an estimated 42,000 the number of Oklahoma children who qualify for health care under the Medicaid program.

The House, meanwhile, was poised to consider legislation greatly expanding Gov. Brad Henry's ``Insure Oklahoma'' program, permitting more businesses to get state subsidies to buy insurance for their employees.

The Senate voted 41-7 for the ``All Kids Act,'' which would close the gap between children now receiving Medicaid benefits and those from families who make too much money to qualify but can't afford private insurance.

``By far the largest group among the uninsured in our state are children who honestly fall through the cracks,'' said Senate President Pro Tem Mike Morgan, D-Stillwater.

The legislation would increase Medicaid eligibility for children from 185 percent to 300 percent of the federal poverty level.

The state's cost of the extra coverage would be $8 million, allowing the state to draw down nearly $30 million in federal funds.

Nico Gomez, spokesman for the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, said 735,000 of Oklahoma's 3.5 million citizens received care through the Medicaid program last year. That group included more than 420,000 children.

The All Kids bill now goes to the House, where it is sponsored by Rep. Doug Cox, R-Grove, the Legislature's only doctor.

Henry praised the Senate action. ``We have a moral responsibility to our youngest, most vulnerable citizens to give them the opportunities provided by adequate and accessible health care,'' he said.

Sen. Tom Adeleson, D-Tulsa, sponsor of the legislation, said children deserve the same opportunity for health care that prison inmates receive. He said the courts have decreed that it is cruel and unusual punishment to deny health care for inmates.

``This year the Department of Corrections will spend about $75 million on health care for prison inmates,'' Adeleson said. ``If it's cruel and unusual for felons, why isn't it cruel and unusual for kids? They've done nothing wrong. They are not responsible for the conditions of their birth.''

Later Tuesday, the House was expected to take up the bill to make businesses with as many as 250 employees eligible for health insurance subsidies. The subsidies are now available only to businesses with 50 or fewer workers.

Under a measure by Rep. Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, employees of small businesses could make up to 250 percent of the federal poverty line.

Steele said expansion of eligibility is needed to increase the number of workers who qualify.

Gomez said that as of this month, 2,228 people were enrolled in the Insure Oklahoma program. The state has funding for 50,000 to 60,000 participants under an expanded program, he said.

``We believe with these new limits and appropriate outreach we could fill a majority of those spots fairly quickly after getting federal approval,'' Gomez said. He said federal approval could take up to six months.

Funding for the two programs will come from tobacco taxes.
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