Hospital Association members assail State Question 744, pledge opposition

Members of the Oklahoma Hospital Association today (Tuesday, October 5) voiced concerns about the potential devastating effects of State Question 744 on access to and the cost of health care in Oklahoma if the ballot measure passes on November 2. Members of the association pledged strong personal efforts to defeat the ballot initiative sponsored by the state’s largest labor union, the Oklahoma Education Association.

“State Question 744 threatens health care for many of the state’s most vulnerable citizens, including our senior citizens who live on fixed incomes, many of whom are in nursing homes, as well as the disabled and children,” said Craig W. Jones, president, Oklahoma Hospital Association (OHA). “The Oklahoma Hospital Association believes it is unwise to take funding away from much-needed medical services when Oklahoma already ranks extremely low in most health status measures.”

In response to a question from CapitolBeatOK, Jones said budget cuts for state programs other than K-12 common education could run 16-22 percent a year to absorb mandated loss in revenues to finance the spending shift required by the controversial initiative. Cost of the shift upon implementation, Jones said, could fall “somewhere close to $2 billion.”

Estimates on the cost of implementation vary, but the Oklahoma Policy Institute and Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, the state’s two leading “think tanks” contend the cost would reach at least $1.7 billion.

State Treasurer Scott Meacham, another foe of the initiative, has called the arguments of the measure’s supporters “disingenuous.”

Several of the state’s leading advocates of improved education funding have also assailed the initiative’s provisions.

At the hospital event, Jones said that allowing two consecutive years of budget cuts to the state’s Medicaid system, “Without a significant tax increase, passage will likely result in even steeper reductions to Oklahoma Medicaid funding, which will trigger more than a two-to-one loss of federal health care dollars which match state funding for health care,” said Jones.

Brian Woodliff, CEO, Tahlequah City Hospital, and OHA board chairman said, “Rural hospitals serve as important safety nets in their communities. If this measure passes it could threaten some rural hospitals’ ability to continue to serve their local residents 24/7. Rural hospitals already absorb millions of dollars each year in uncompensated care and cuts of this magnitude could be devastating to these communities.”

Jones noted that about one-half of Oklahoma’s hospitals have less than 100 beds, and “half of that half” have less than 50 beds. Most smaller facilities are in small towns and rural areas and would be most heavily impacted by S.Q. 744’s mandated cuts in non-common schools spending, officials with the association told CapitolBeatOK.

As more citizens lose certain Medicaid benefits, they will turn to emergency rooms, opponents of S.Q. 744 also said today.

James Moore, president, INTEGRIS Southwest Medical Center, Oklahoma City, and INTEGRIS Canadian Valley Medical Center, Yukon, said, “S.Q.  744 could result in cuts to the state’s Medicaid program that will impact many children and nursing home residents. For example, as physicians are unable to care for nursing home patients due to lack of sufficient reimbursement, those patients will turn to emergency rooms for their care. While Oklahoma hospitals are committed to caring for those in need of services, further burdens on ERs impact all of us.”

Saying in a press release circulated at the press event that they “recognize the devastating effect of this state question,” the hospital association is a member of the One Oklahoma Coalition, the organization leading the call to vote no on S.Q. 744

Governor Brad Henry, popularly known as “the education governor” has stated his opposition to S.Q. 744 and is serving as honorary chairman of the coalition. Both candidates for governor oppose the proposition.

The coalition membership ranges from the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce to the state AFL-CIO and other unions, as well as many other groups representing rural Oklahoma, health care providers and other groups. With more than 75 organizations and associations actively involved, the One Oklahoma Coalition is the most unprecedented group formed in state history for the purpose of defeating a state question.

The coalition asserts that to fully fund the initiative’s requirement may require an additional $1,200 in new taxes for a family of four, a 34 percent increase in state sales tax or a 38 percent increase in state income tax.

According to an interim legislative study, a 20 percent across-the-board cut would have a devastating effect on services. Such a cut would mean releasing 8,400 prisoners, closing eight or nine prisons, laying off more than 125 state troopers, leaving more than 200 bridges unrepaired and the loss of more than $343 million federal matching dollars for health care alone.

A reporter asked how to take schools forward in a challenging budget environment. Jones answered, “The first objective is to defeat State Question 744. We want to be part of the discussion on how to make the quality of life in Oklahoma better. It is irresponsible to make common education the only priority of state government, as this initiative does, when so many others are facing challenges.” 

To view the medicaid funding budget for 2011, click on more information above.

NOTE: Editor Patrick B. McGuigan contributed to this report.