OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - Michael Leavitt, secretary of health and human services, promoted President Bush's health care plan on Friday and gave Gov. Brad Henry a pat on the back for efforts to expand health insurance coverage to Oklahomans.
“It's a very fruitful idea,” Leavitt said of the Insure Oklahoma program, whereby the state helps small employers pay for health insurance for their employees. Tobacco tax revenue is used to match federal funds to pay for the program.
“He has wrestled, as well as every other state, with the dilemma” of so many uninsured workers, Leavitt said of the Oklahoma governor.
Henry's health care initiative has drawn some criticism from some Republican lawmakers, who say it has not lived up to expectations.
Henry, a Democrat, said he was pleased to hear President Bush address health care in his State of the Union speech.
The president is proposing federal tax breaks to help citizens pay for health insurance.
Leavitt said the program recognizes that paying taxes up front and then buying health insurance is “just too heavy a lift” for individuals.
“We had a great discussion and I know we are going to develop a partnership with our federal counterparts,” Henry said.
He praised Leavitt, whom he first knew when the federal official was governor of Utah, for doing “a fabulous job under trying circumstances” as a cabinet secretary.
Earlier this week, Henry proposed expanding the program that helps small businesses provide insurance for their workers and another that covers the health care needs of children.
He wants legislators to expand the Insure Oklahoma program to cover employees who make twice the poverty level, which would be about $40,000 a year for a family of four based on 2006 figures. The program now covers workers who make 185 percent of the poverty level, or $37,000.
Henry supports legislation that would allow the state to set the threshold even higher if needed waivers were granted by the federal government.
Under Insure Oklahoma, the state pays 60 percent of a worker's health insurance cost, employers pay 25 percent and employees pay 15 percent. For every dollar the state invests in the program, it receives approximately two dollars in matching federal money.
Henry said many small business owners say the current eligibility cap hinders their participation in the program, which covers employers who have 50 or fewer workers.
House speaker Lance Cargill and Senate Co-President Pro Tem Glenn Coffee expressed misgivings about the governor's plans.
Cargill, R-Harrah, said he was concerned “about investing more of the taxpayers' money in a program that has been oversold and has under-delivered.”
Only about 1,600 people have been covered under the Insure Oklahoma program so far, according a spokesman for the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.
Henry said that agency, working with the Oklahoma Department of Commerce and the Insurance Commissioner's Office, has announced a $1 million marketing plan to raise awareness of the program.