Earlier this week, the Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, T.W. Shannon, scuttling any hopes that the Insure Oklahoma program could remain a viable option for providing health insurance to some low-income working Oklahomans. This means that the program’s recipients could end up, along with some 130,000 other Oklahomans with family incomes below the poverty level, stuck without health insurance options.
The Speaker explained it was a ‘philosophical choice’ not to support Gov. Fallin’s proposal to keep the Insure Oklahoma program going, by directing $50 million dollars in state only funds to cover up to 9,000 Oklahomans. Speaker Shannon explained his decision further by saying, “I don’t believe providing health insurance is a proper or efficient function of government.”
He also blamed the demise of the Insure Oklahoma program on President Obama stating that, “It is unfortunate these Oklahomans will be without health insurance due to President Obama’s policies, despite the guarantees that everyone would be covered.”
The government providing or assisting with the purchase of health insurance is not a new concept conjured up by President Obama and the Affordable Care Act. Government sponsored health insurance programs exist in many forms. The two most popular are Medicare, which provides health insurance to Americans 65 years and older and persons with disabilities, and Medicaid, which primarily covers low-income children, pregnant women, and persons with disabilities. The Department of Defense provides health care coverage to uniform service members, retirees, and their families through the health care program Tricare.
Altogether, nearly 1.5 million Oklahomans, or almost 40 percent of the state’s population receive health insurance through one of these government sponsored program. These Oklahomans include almost all seniors 65 and older and persons with disabilities, more than half of all children, service members, and some veterans.
Government also pays to provide private health insurance to public employees, such as teachers, firefighters, law enforcement officers, and safety inpectors. There were almost 250,000 Oklahomans employed by the state and local governments in 2011 and an additional 35,000 Oklahomans employed by the federal government. In addition to state employees, Oklahoma offers health insurance benefits to elected and appointed state officials, including members of the Legislature such as Speaker Shannon. Providing health insurance benefits to public employees gives the government the ability to compete for applicants who may otherwise pursue employment options in the private sector. According to Oklahoma Statute, one of the purposes of the Oklahoma Employees Insurance and Benefits Act is, “To enable the state to attract and retain qualified employees by providing health, dental, and life insurance benefits similar to those commonly provided in private industry.”
Public employees are not the only beneficiaries of government assistance in providing health insurance. Private businesses and organizations receive tax benefits for providing health insurance to their employees. This too, allows private companies to offer attractive benefits, in addition to salary compensation, to compete for sought after applicants.
The reality is that if government didn’t provide health insurance, at least 1.5 million Oklahomans, including seniors, service members, those with disabilities and the poor, would be left without coverage. Is this really what Speaker Shannon believes?