Henry eyes expanded health care coverage

Saturday, November 8th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Expanding health care coverage to Oklahomans will be one of the top goals of Gov. Brad Henry in 2004.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Henry envisioned a plan that would qualify Oklahomans who currently make too much money to receive Medicaid benefits but not enough to afford health care insurance.

"We need to do something to bridge that gap," he said. About 20 percent of Oklahomans have no health care insurance and this drives up health care costs for everyone else.

He said the program is still being developed and several options are being considered, such as rationing benefits to cover more Oklahomans.

The hope is, Henry said, that federal matching dollars can be obtained for the program.

He said he was hesitant to go into details of options because officials had not settled on what the federal government will allow in the way of waivers to existing federal guidelines.

Among his other major goals next year, Henry said, will be to do "some big things" for education, despite the prospects for another tight budget year.

Protecting health care and schools from budget cuts were among the major accomplishments Henry counted in his first year in office.

Reflecting last week on the anniversary of his election, Henry said he and his family had adjusted to life in a fish bowl after years of less hectic living in their hometown of Shawnee.

Clearing his calendar for family nights every Sunday and Wednesday "has kept me sane," the governor said.

Looking back to the 2003 legislative session, Henry said: "We accomplished everything we set out to do."

Overcoming a $700 million budget shortfall was the first order of business.

"I'm probably most proud of the bipartisan approach we brought to a very difficult situation," the Democratic governor said, mentioning an early session agreement with Republicans that included expedited funding for schools and called for implementing a zero-based budgeting process.

He said he was proud that $80 million in new dollars was appropriated for education without a tax increase.

He credited Robert Butkin, state treasurer, with doing yeoman's work as head of his transition team, setting the bipartisan tone of his administration.

One of the biggest fights in this year's Legislature was over Henry's lottery plan, the cornerstone of his gubernatorial campaign.

The issue is heading for the ballot box in November and Henry envisioned "an extremely difficult" battle to pass the proposition, which earmarks lottery proceeds to education.

"This is not going to be Brad Henry's campaign," he said. "This is not my lottery. It's the people's lottery."

He said he remains committed to leading the fight to pass the proposal, however.

"I fully expect to be out during the election cycle stumping on behalf of the education lottery," Henry said.

The Democratic governor said he will approach the 2004 legislative session the same way he did this year.

It will be another difficult budget year, he said, because the budget gap he inherited was partly plugged by more than $200 in one-time funds that won't be available this year.

Henry said he expects "a few more partisan barbs" in 2004 because it is an election year, but hopes to avoid such skirmishes as much as possible.

"I just believe the best way to accomplish things is to work with both parties," he said. "Partisanship is fine for the election process, but once you are elected and at the Capitol, it's time to roll up your sleeves and do what's best for Oklahoma."

Another victory for Henry last session was passage of a law banning smoking in most public places.

The law gives restaurants until March 1, 2006, to go smoke free or build separately ventilated smoking rooms.

Some restaurant owners have opposed smoking bans, but Henry said he did not expect a further legislative attempt on their behalf to elude the prohibition.

Henry said he is optimistic of the future and is hoping for some "big, visionary" proposals to spur economic progress from his ongoing Economic Development Generating Excellence program, known as EDGE.

In the short term, Henry said he believes the state's economic downturn has bottomed out, but "I'm not ready yet to declare a sustained economic recovery."