Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry on Jan. 23 proposed expanding two health care programs – one that helps small businesses provide insurance for their workers and another that covers the health care needs of children.
“One in five Oklahomans has no health insurance, and the implications of that are far-reaching and serious,” Henry said. “Uninsured citizens end up in our emergency rooms, with hospitals and insurance companies passing those costs on to those who have insurance.”
He wants lawmakers to expand the Insure Oklahoma program to cover employees who make twice the poverty level, which would be about $40,000 a year for a family of four based on 2006 figures. The program now covers workers who make 185 percent of the poverty level or $37,000.
Henry supports legislation that would allow the state to set the threshold even higher if needed waivers were granted by the federal government.
Under the Insure Oklahoma program, participating employers and employees pay a portion of their health insurance premiums with the state picking up the rest of the tab.
The state pays 60 percent of the cost, employers pay 25 percent and employees pay 15 percent. For every dollar the state invests in the program, it receives approximately two dollars in matching federal money.
Henry said many small business owners say the current eligibility cap hinders their participation in the program, which covers employers who have 50 or fewer workers.
Henry said participation in the program also has been hampered because too many small businesses do not know about it and how it can help them with their health care costs.
He said the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, in conjunction with the Oklahoma Department of Commerce and the Insurance Commissioners Office, has announced a $1 million marketing plan to raise awareness of the program.
House Speaker Lance Cargill, R-Harrah, and Senate Co-President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, expressed misgivings about expanding the program.
“I have real concerns about investing more of the taxpayers’ money in a program that has been oversold and has under-delivered,” Cargill said.
“We’re willing to study his proposal, but the governor should be very cautious about expanding government programs in what could be a tight budget year,” Coffee said.
They pointed to a recent newspaper account showing the Insure Oklahoma program had only 1,394 enrollees in 72 of the state’s 77 counties.
Henry also is asking the Legislature to augment Medicaid funding to provide health coverage for all poor children in Oklahoma. That would be accomplished by raising Medicaid eligibility for children from 185 percent of the poverty level to 300 percent, the maximum allowed under federal guidelines.
The governor said under the current system, many Oklahoma families without health insurance “have no recourse but to hope and pray that their children don’t get sick. That is unacceptable. We have a responsibility to our youngest generation to give them an opportunity to lead healthy, productive lives.”
Increasing Medicaid eligibility to 300 percent of the poverty level would provide coverage for as many as 42,000 additional children in Oklahoma, he said.
In 2006, 185 percent of the poverty line for a family of four equaled roughly $37,000. Raising the cap to 300 percent would encompass a family of four with a household income equivalent to $60,000. About 65 percent of the 740,000 Oklahomans on Medicaid are 18 years old or younger.
Sen. Andrew Rice, D-Oklahoma City, has introduced both the Insure Oklahoma and Medicaid proposals.
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