Health Care Premiums Outpace Oklahomans’ Earnings

November 29, 2006

The cost of health insurance for Oklahoma families rose more than four times faster than their wages over the last six years, according to a new study.

The report released by Families USA, a nonprofit health care consumer advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., said that from 2000 to 2006, health care premiums for Oklahomans jumped 59.9 percent, while median earnings rose 13.1 percent.

“Oklahoma families have been hit hard in the pocketbooks due to skyrocketing health costs and stagnant wages,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA. “As a result, Oklahomans are paying much larger portions of their paychecks on health care, and health care is becoming less and less affordable.”

The combination of higher health care costs and slower wage increases is leading to an increasing number of uninsured and underinsured Oklahomans, the group reported.

There are currently an estimated 650,000 Oklahomans without health insurance, said David Blatt, public policy director for the Community Action Project, a Tulsa-based anti-poverty group.

While state lawmakers have taken some steps to address the problem, like an initiative pushed by Gov. Brad Henry to expand health insurance coverage to small businesses and their employers, more action is needed, Blatt said.

“It seems like the state has been bailing water out of a leaky ship with a very small bucket,” Blatt said. “Frankly, we’re going to need a more aggressive approach or to add other strategies if we’re going to make a serious dent in the number of uninsured Oklahomans.”

Henry’s “Insure Oklahoma” initiative originally was signed into law in 2004, providing government subsidies to businesses with 25 or fewer employees to buy health insurance. The program was expanded this year to cover businesses with 50 or fewer workers.

Besides problems with the affordability of health insurance, Oklahomans are facing other financial burdens with the increasing cost of gasoline and utilities.

“We know that despite the state’s current overall growth, median households are not seeing substantial income growth,” Blatt said. “That means less income for other necessities and, in many cases, growing debt as families struggle to pay out-of-pocket health insurance costs.”

The Families USA report cites a study that found more than half of bankruptcies are now due, at least in part, to problems with medical costs.

“If this troubling trend continues, the health care affordability crisis will get much worse and many more Oklahomans will become uninsured and underinsured,” Pollack said.

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