Health Care Work Group Holds First Meeting; Data Shows Oklahomans Have Poor Health Outcomes

by Scott Carter

OKLAHOMA CITY – State leaders need to address tobacco use, poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle by Oklahomans if they want to improve residents health, an official with the Oklahoma Department of Health said this week.

Speaking at the first meeting of a joint legislative Health Working Group Buffy Heater, the chief data and policy officer for the State Department of Health, said Oklahoma ranked 47th out of 50 states in health outcomes.

“We recognize that much attention has been paid to Oklahoma’s health crisis,” Heater said. “We are currently ranked at 47th across the nation. As you’ll see Oklahoma health scores have been in a steady state of decline. Although there have been years that have, perhaps, seen some gains and some losses, overall if you look at that line from 1990 to present day it has been a steady decline.”

Reducing tobacco use, improving residents’ diet and increasing physical activity would improve health in four chronic conditions: cardiopulmonary disease, cancer, lung disease and diabetes, she said. Heater said those conditions contributed to 65 percent of the deaths in Oklahoma.

Republican legislative leaders organized the work group and tasked it with developing a way to expand Medicaid coverage in Oklahoma. The group met for the first time August 14, gathering information from the Oklahoma State Department of Health and the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.

The 20-person group, which includes Republican and Democratic members of the Oklahoma House and Senate and two representatives from Governor Kevin Stitt’s office, was organized in hopes of bypassing an initiative petition – now being circulated – that would expand Medicaid coverage in Oklahoma under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Republican lawmakers hope the working group, which was modeled after a similar group which developed policies for medical marijuana, will complete its work before the Medicaid expansion initiative petition goes to a public vote. Supporters of the petition have 90 days to gather 178,000 signatures to put the initiative on the fall 2020 ballot. But Wednesday, as members of the group gathered for their meeting, supporters of the ballot initiative – located in an adjacent meeting room — gathered signatures for the petition.

State Senator Greg McCortney, a Republican from Ada, said the ballot initiative would “put Obamacare’ straight into our constitution.” He predicted the working group would create a better plan for the state.

“Once we get that done, we’re going to need the people of Oklahoma to turn down the ballot initiative,” he said. “This is a big deal. We don’t do this. We don’t have joint working groups. We had one last year for the first time in many, many, many years. Bringing the House together, the Senate together. Democrats. Republicans. The Governor’s office. This is not the normal operation of business and I hope the people of Oklahoma understand that what we’re doing here is not only something we find important but something we’re really serious about tackling.”

At the end of the meetings, McCortney said, lawmakers hope to come out with recommendations not about Medicaid expansion and not just about how the state is going to pay for health care but with a way to address why the state is one of the least healthiest states in the nation.

“We have fundamental problems in how we take care of ourselves,” he said.

State Rep. Marcus McEntire, R-Duncan, said members of the group want to improve the way Oklahomans access health care. “We want find a solution that will make it more affordable for our citizens,” he said.

That effort, however, could prove difficult.

Carter Kimble, Deputy Secretary of Health and Mental Health for Gov. Stitt’s office, said the issue of health care needed to be addressed. “I struggle at times to even comprehend the magnitude of what we’re about to talk on,” Kimble said.

Kimble questioned whether or not the state was spending its health care dollars wisely. He pointed to data that showed Oklahoma with a 6th in the nation ranking for the number of mental health providers but a 46th in the nation ranking for mental health issues.

“I too called out the sixth in mental health providers,” Kimble said. “My frustration immediately went back up when I saw that we’re 46th in days of mental health distress. That’s a disconnect that I would like to draw attention to.”

Though fewer Oklahomans are living in rural areas, Audra Cross, an official with the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, said and increasing number residents of rural Oklahoma don’t have health insurance.

State lawmakers said the Health Working Group will meet several more times this year. Next week, on Aug. 21, the group will examine health care in the state corrections system.

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