by Gus Blackwell
This week is the last week of the session and there are about 200 bills left to consider. The constitution requires that the session end on the last Friday in May at 5p.m. The time this week will be split between the final passage of budget bills and those bills that have been passed out of their conference committees. Last week there was agreement on several measures that will bolster health care issues in the state. Oklahomans rank as one of the unhealthiest states in the nation and it is essential to help implement measures that will help improve our health overall
An agreement that was reached last week will help the poor and elderly with the cost of prescription drugs. Oklahoma will adopt a Smart Card system that would help citizens take advantage of existing discounts of up to 40 percent offered by pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies.
Oklahoma will also implement a new Rx for Oklahoma program statewide—increasing access to prescription drugs for the uninsured, low income Oklahomans and senior citizens through a public-private partnership. Oklahoma will provide $1 million in funding to the state Department of Commerce to establish various access points for the expanded program including county offices of the state Department of Human Services and county health departments.
The agreement also contains the Health Savings Account Act. This measure allows individuals who purchase a high deductible insurance policy to deposit and expend cash free from Oklahoma income tax for qualified medical expenses. This account can continue to accrue year after year and the decision about what qualifies as medical expenses rests entirely with the individual.
The agreement includes a measure that provides more clinicians in our rural communities. The plan requires the Physician manpower Training Commission to expand the benefits for its Rural Medical Education Loan and Scholarship program to students preparing to become Physician Assistants. The loan program provides qualified individuals with demonstrated financial need who commit to practice their profession in a rural town one year's scholarship for each year they practice in the rural area. The minimum required is two years.
The health care agreement includes the Long-term Care Security Act, a new law that would require criminal background checks for all employees of long-term care facilities in Oklahoma. The measure also mandates that the state Department of Corrections must notify any long-term card facility in the state, in addition to local law enforcement officials, if any registered sex offenders are living in that facility.
One problem that we are having with our budget this year that deals with health issues is the tobacco tax. It is collecting only about 20% of the promised revenues. That means that General Revenue money must be used to pay for the costly commitments made in this bill. That is leaving holes in the budget for money that otherwise could be used to get federal matching dollars for health care and help hospitals and health departments.
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