Report: Nearly a half-million Oklahoma adults uninsured

Saturday, January 31st 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

A new national report finds that nearly a half-million Oklahomans don't have medical insurance and tend to use emergency rooms for basic treatments.

Only Louisiana, New Mexico and Texas have higher percentages of adults between ages 18 and 64 who are uninsured than Oklahoma, according to a Kaiser Commission report released on Friday.

About 23.5 percent of adults or 498,000 men and women don't have insurance, according to the report. California has the same percentage as Oklahoma.

A decade ago, 399,000 adults, or 20.2 percent, didn't have private or public medical insurance.

"Ultimately, states like Oklahoma with high numbers of uninsured wind up paying anyhow if these people wind up in emergency rooms or find themselves in some kind of medical crisis that requires hospitalization," said Katherine Barrett, co-author of the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured.

Kaiser researchers said Oklahoma's situation "is likely to worsen given the state's decision to drop coverage for the 'medically needy," or those who reach Medicaid eligibility by virtue of high health care bills.

Last year, the Oklahoma Health Care Authority cut $5 million from "medically needy" coverage because of state budget problems. About 8,300 Oklahomans a year typically used that coverage.

But Nico Gomez, OHCA spokesman, said the Medicaid program for 650,000 of the state's poorest residents couldn't afford to fund care for people who aren't initially Medicaid eligible.

Because of federal regulations, Oklahomans without medical insurance can't be turned away. How their care is funded frequently involves "cost shifting."

"The hospital or emergency room must charge more to paying patients and insurance companies to cover the losses of those who cannot or will not pay. It is generally called 'cost shifting,"' said Michael Lapolla, co-director of the Center for Health Policy at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa.

Greta Shepherd Stewart, executive director of the Oklahoma Primary Care Association, said the state needs to invest more money into the expansion of Medicaid.

"Given the state's high numbers of uninsured as well as underinsured above and beyond those eligible for Medicaid and Medicare, the Legislature must take immediate action to phase in funding to address the care of that portion of our population routinely using hospital emergency rooms as their primary care source," Stewart said.