MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Oklahoma News

March 5, 2013

State faces culture challenge with federal health care law

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma officials say they’ve had no contact with the federal government about how to tell the state’s non-English speaking population about the federal health care overhaul. More than 276,163 Oklahoma residents, or 8.2 percent of the state’s population, speak a language other than English at home, according to 2007 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau. Of those, 120,658 say they speak English less than very well. The vast majority of non-English speakers, more than 180,000, speak Spanish, and the Oklahoma Health Department provides bilingual translators in many county health departments to assist the Spanish-speaking community, according to agency spokeswoman Leslea Bennett-Webb. “All state agencies are tasked with trying to assure that their messages reach non-English speakers,” Bennett-Webb said. The federal government could tap that resource when it launches it’s online insurance marketplace, she said. “But they haven’t asked us to,” she said. The federal government has said it wants the federally facilitated insurance exchanges available starting Oct 1. But Bennett-Webb said federal officials have provided limited information to the Health Department regarding creation of the exchange or the government’s plan for outreach or consumer assistance. A spokesperson for the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services said the agency is developing a plan for outreach and education that will raise consumer awareness about new coverage opportunities that will be available in 2014 and is committed to making information available is culturally appropriate ways, including reaching a large Spanish speaking The Oklahoma City-County Health Department has employed as many as five Spanish translators to help assist the county’s more than 74,000 Spanish-speaking residents, including more than 40,000 who say they speak English less than very well. “We always have translators,” said human resources administrator Lorri Essary. She said the agency works closely with Spanish-language broadcasters in the city to inform Spanish-speaking residents of its services. “We make every effort to assure we can communicate with our clients,” Essary said. In 2011, Gov. Mary Fallin rejected a $54.6 million federal grant to help create a health insurance exchange for the state that is required by the new law, opening the door for the federal government to create its own exchange for the state. Because the state is not directly involved in the exchange’s creation, Bennett-Webb said it is not the state’s responsibility to assure it is accessible for non-English speakers. She said information from the government about the exchange has been limited. The government’s work has mostly involved the insurance regulatory environment in Oklahoma, and while state health officials have asked questions concerning consumer assistance the government has provided no information and there have been no specific conversations regarding non-English speaking users, she said.

— OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — The Oklahoma House voted Monday to limit the students eligible for a statewide college-aid program amid fears that rising costs could jeopardize the tuition payments for many low-income students who rely on them.

By a 56-37 vote, the House narrowly cleared a proposal from Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, that would restrict the families eligible for the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Program, also known as Oklahoma’s Promise. It now heads to the Senate.

Currently, the program pays public tuition costs to students who meet certain academic standards if their families also meet two requirements: earning less than $50,000 when the students apply in eighth, ninth or 10th grade and earning less than $100,000 when the students start college. Osborn’s bill would change that final requirement to less than $60,000.

Osborn said the bill would save the program for the neediest students. She pointed to the program’s budget, which she said has ballooned from $4.5 million in 2003 to roughly $60 million the past school year.

“Do we want to keep this program for the ones it’s truly intended for?” she asked the chamber. “Or do we want the costs to escalate so much that we end up losing it for everybody?”

That was not enough to convince Democrats, along with several of Osborn’s fellow Republicans. After attempting to derail the bill’s vote, opponents described the bill in soaring rhetoric as breaking a promise to some Oklahoma students and preventing them from making it to college.

“Are we going to send these kids into minimum wage jobs?” said Rep. James Lockhart, D-Heavener. “That’s what’s at stake. Let’s not sell out the American dream because it’s politically correct.”

House Democratic leader Scott Inman said single parents could make their children ineligible simply by getting married, and he questioned how costly the program is when compared to a $120 million income tax cut embraced by most Republicans.

According to a spokesman for the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, which administers Oklahoma’s Promise, Osborn’s proposal would edge out 500 students from the program in August 2014’s incoming class, saving $1.6 million based on current tuition. After four years, that number would grow to about 1600 students.

“In providing scholarships to over 20,000 Oklahoma students, the program is working exceptionally well,” Glen Johnson, chancellor of the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education, said in an email statement. “We do not support any efforts to restrict student access to the scholarship.”

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