OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Oklahoma's Medicaid agency cut millions of dollars in health care benefits Thursday to help meet a projected $21.3 million budget shortfall.
Health care providers said the cuts, approved without dissent by the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, will jeopardize the health of women, children and elderly Oklahomans who rely on Medicaid for their health-care needs.
``This will inflict massive pain and suffering on thousands of Oklahomans,'' Mike Simmons, head of Oklahomans for Reasonable Health Care, said prior to the authority's action.
``How can we justify cuts of any kind for care?'' said Barbie Mahon, administrator of Ranchwood Nursing Center.
Ivan Holmes, executive director of the Oklahoma Lupus Association, said Medicaid benefits could mean the difference between life and death for lupus sufferers who have no private health insurance to pay for physician care and medication.
``We can't even get any help for them,'' Holmes said. He said the state's health-care crisis should be the top issue in this year's campaign for governor.
Members of the authority expressed regret at the cuts but said their fiscal obligations to the state left them no choice.
``The Oklahoma Health Care Authority is in an impossible situation,'' said Dr. T.J. Brickner, chairman of the authority's board.
``We realize that these people desperately need quality health care and services, but we also realize that we are absolutely bound by the Constitution of Oklahoma and the federal rules governing Medicaid,'' Brickner said.
The authority approved about $11 million in cuts to programs that serve approximately 50,000 Oklahomans, including pregnant women, infants, children and the elderly who are confined to nursing homes.
The reductions include a change in eligibility standards for pregnant women, infants and children through age 18 who are at the federal poverty level as well as elimination of programs that provide dental and other services to needy adults.
The cuts amount to about half of the agency's projected budget shortfall. Nico Gomez, a spokesman for the agency, said officials plan to ask the Legislature for a budget supplement to make up the rest.
The cuts marked the second time in as many years that the agency has been forced to cut services due to financial problems. Cuts were announced last year but were restored following passage of a supplemental spending bill.
State Finance Director Tom Daxon has ordered state agencies to cut their 2002 fiscal year budgets by 2.1 percent because of a projected decline in revenue.
About $3.8 million of the funds trimmed by the authority is due to a decline in revenue. The balance is the result of a sharp increase in Medicaid enrollment
Anne Garcia, director of financial services for the agency, said unemployment in the state rose 1 percent between March and November, ``resulting in the loss of jobs and income for many Oklahomans.
During that period, enrollment in the state's Medicaid program rose from 440,000 to 461,000.
``Utilization of health care is on the rise,'' Garcia said.
She said the agency is $9.7 million over its medicaid budget and will run out of money by Feb. 15 at the current rate of spending.