OPINION

Legislature has taken action to improve access to health services

Sen. Bill Coleman

Protecting public health is one of the Legislature’s main responsibilities. This session, I was so pleased by not only the significant investments made to improve the health of our citizens but also the many policies signed into law that will provide better health care and health outcomes for Oklahomans.

As I mentioned previously, the budget includes $164 million to cover the first year of the voter-approved Medicaid expansion, which will provide critical health care services to approximately 200,000 more Oklahomans starting July 1. More than 51,000 residents have been approved for SoonerCare benefits since enrollment opened on June 1. About 65% of them have been women. Those who are 19 to 64 years old, whose income is 138% or lower than the federal poverty level, are eligible for coverage. For individuals, this is around $17,800 annually and nearly $36,600 for a family of four. You can apply at MySoonerCare.org or by calling 800-987-7767.

One of the main contributing factors to our state continually ranking low for poor health outcomes is our inadequate number of medical professionals. Many residents, especially in rural Oklahoma, don’t have access to any kind of health care but instead have to drive to another community to get help. For the elderly and disabled, this is near impossible and a tremendous hardship.

To get more doctors and nurses on the job, we restored a historic sales tax credit for OU Health that will allow significantly more health care professionals to be trained in our state. We also appropriated nearly $10 million to create a children’s mental health unit at OU Health.

While our nation and state learned some hard lessons during the pandemic, some good things have come from it. The importance of telehealth was one of them. Expanding access to this virtual service was critical for Oklahomans last year and continues to be.

We approved Senate Bill 674 to make sure our citizens have continued access to these important health care services by ensuring payment parity for doctors who use telemedicine for patient care beginning Jan. 1. It was brought to the Legislature’s attention that insurance companies have traditionally paid physicians less for telemedicine visits versus in-person visits, even when the services are the same.

The governor was able to guarantee payment parity through his pandemic emergency orders, and people took full advantage of it. Telehealth visits grew more than 2,700% from nearly 12,000 in 2019 to nearly 334,000 in 2020. This important policy change will ensure that virtual health services continue and are further expanded, which will be especially beneficial for vulnerable populations in areas without access to health care. It will further help the disabled and our senior citizens who may have mobility issues or are unable to drive. It will be life changing for so many.

Another great bill that passed overwhelmingly was SB 104, which will allow virtual physical therapy sessions beginning Nov. 1. Again, so many don’t have access to this type of treatment or physically are unable to attend physical therapy in person. By utilizing telehealth in this manner, more Oklahomans will have a better quality of life.

SB 3 was also signed into law to allow law enforcement officers to use telemedicine to have an individual they believe is in mental crisis be assessed by a licensed mental health professional to decide whether they need services or not. Mental illness is a growing problem in our state, and one that puts law enforcement in a difficult position. Currently, their only option is to take these individuals to jail, which means they’re treated like a prisoner rather than a patient.

Beginning Nov. 1, officers will be allowed to transport those in need of mental health treatment, or who are subject to an emergency detention, to the nearest facility within a 30-mile radius. If no facility is available in that area, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, or one of its contracted organizations, will transport the patient. This is a much-needed reform that will get these individuals the help they need while lessening the burden on our local jails.

As always, check out the Senate website at www.oksenate.gov for more information.  

You can contact me by calling 405-521-5581 or emailing Bill.Coleman@oksenate.gov.