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Advocates Celebrate Start Of Benefits Under Oklahoma Medicaid Expansion

More than 120,000 uninsured Oklahomans get health coverage Thursday when voter-approved Medicaid expansion takes effect.

Voters narrowly approved a state constitutional amendment last June to make more working adults eligible for the program. It was put on the ballot through the initiative petition process after lawmakers declined to expand Medicaid for years.

Oklahoma Policy Institute has long made the case for Medicaid expansion. Policy Director Carly Putnam and Legislative and Outreach Director Angela Monson said tying health insurance to a job is problematic.

"Health care shouldn't be a reward. Health care is so foundational to being able to do everything we want people to do to make us the state we know we can be," Putnam said.

"That's absolutely right. Sick adults can't work, sick children can't learn. So, it is basic," Monson said.

Danielle Gaddis said she’s lived in the "coverage gap" for two years. Adults 18 to 65 years old without employer-sponsored insurance could make too much money to be eligible for Medicaid but too little to qualify for Affordable Care Act Marketplace subsidies. With medical school on the horizon, Gaddis was left uninsured when her mom retired, losing her insurance.

"The most challenging part about not being covered under insurance is when you get something as simple as, like, a flu or a high fever, maybe strep throat, and you can't go to the doctor because you know that the visit itself is going to have not a co-pay, but a full payment that you're going to have to come up with," Gaddis said.

Expansion is seen by many as a lifeline for struggling rural hospitals that care for large numbers of uninsured patients. Legal Aid health navigator Steve Goldman said that’s not the only benefit Medicaid expansion has for rural Oklahoma.

"Rural areas also have smaller companies that may not offer health plans. So, along with the ACA Marketplace, SoonerCare expansion lets Oklahomans live rural, not have to move to a big city just for a job with health coverage," Goldman said.

Health groups say Medicaid expansion will make Oklahomans much healthier by increasing access to preventive care, proven tobacco cessation programs and mental health services. Lisa Turner is CEO of The Arc of Oklahoma, which helps Oklahomans with intellectual disabilities. She said savings the state sees from Medicaid expansion could be used to bolster the state’s Home and Community Based Services Waivers.

"A program that right now has almost 5,800 Oklahomans on a waiting list averaging 13 years for those individuals to receive critical supports to live at home in the community rather than in institutions," Turner said.

Oklahomans 18 to 65 years old making up to 138% of the federal poverty level can apply for health coverage at mysoonercare.org. That’s about $17,200 a year for an individual.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.
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