Oklahoma ranks second in the nation in the percentage of residents who do not have health insurance according to the United States Census Bureau, with more than 500,000 Oklahomans currently uninsured. During Thursday evening’s Health Care Forum panelists discussed possible actions the state could take to reduce this number.
Rep. Tammy Townley, R-Ardmore, who was not a panelist, spoke briefly at the beginning of the forum and said this summer the legislature will be forming a task force to look into this Issue. She said one option is the possible expansion of the Ensure Oklahoma program by using Medicaid dollars from the federal government.
Carly Putnam, health care analyst for the Oklahoma Policy Institute, described Ensure Oklahoma.
“Ensure Oklahoma is a public/private partnership that’s been operating here for quite a while. It was designed to try to bring some health coverage to those who otherwise don’t have access to it, mostly those who work at small employers,” Putnam said.
She said the program has employer-sponsored insurance options and an individual plan for those who qualify. She said the state is in a good position to further expand the program, but noted a few issues.
“It is worth noting that most other states who have tried a private option have ultimately abandoned it because they found it really difficult to administer,” Putnam said. She also said that in order to enact an expansion of Ensure Oklahoma, the state would need to get permission from the federal government.
“We’re not anticipating for that to be a huge barrier, but it does present a time lag,” Putnam said.
Val Schott, senior consultant at Rural Hospital Group, discussed the benefits of having a larger number of insured residents.
“Let me tell you what happens when somebody is uninsured, they don’t go to the doctor when they should,” Schott said. “In my view, as a long-time health care professional, we need to worry not so much about going to the hospital, we need to worry about going to see your primary care doctor on a regular basis so you don’t have to go to the hospital.”
Schott said those without insurance are likely to use the emergency room as a doctor’s office.
“That’s where people go because they wait and wait and wait because they can’t afford to go to the doctor, and when they can’t do anything else they go to the emergency room,” Schott said. “We’re spending tons of money in Oklahoma on inappropriate care in hospital emergency departments that we wouldn’t if we would expand primary care coverage to as many people as possible.”