Raise the Cigarette Tax Now to Save Health Care

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Categories: Health & Fitness

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Jimmy Leopard is CEO at Wagoner Community Hospital and chairman of the Oklahoma Hospital Association board of trustees.

Health care in our state is on the brink of collapse. With impending medical reimbursement rate cuts coming to an already inadequately funded health care system, this summer may see the end of health care as we know it in Oklahoma.
This is not a threat – it is reality. Oklahoma is on the verge of a statewide system failure that will hurt everyone, risk lives and damage the state.
Hospital administrators and health care professionals have been warning about the deepening health care crisis for months. The state has experienced two revenue failures – months when it cannot pay its bills – during this fiscal year. In addition, with Oklahoma facing a $1.3 billion budget hole for next year, the agency that administers the state’s Medicaid program is planning for devastating provider rate cuts beginning June 1.
Previous cuts have already taken a heavy toll. Additional cuts of any size will force physicians to turn away patients on Medicaid. With an expected cut of 25 percent, at least a dozen hospitals will shut down within a year. More than 90 percent of Oklahoma nursing homes will close, pushing at least 16,000 disabled and elderly Oklahomans onto the street. Only 20 percent of Oklahoma hospitals will deliver babies. Mental health treatment will be slashed even more.
People will lose jobs, communities will suffer and lives will be at risk. Just a few days remain in the legislative session, and with every passing hour our state moves closer to the edge.
Decisive action is needed, and there is a clear solution: Raise the cigarette tax by $1.50 per pack this legislative session. Gov. Mary Fallin proposed the cigarette tax increase in February. Rather than turning a blind eye and forcing health care to implode in Oklahoma, now is the time for the Legislature to raise the cigarette tax. We cannot afford to wait until a statewide vote in November – too much damage will be done.
Raising the cigarette tax now and rebalancing Medicaid will help lawmakers balance the state budget and reduce cuts to schools, prisons and health care.  It will provide a dedicated state funding source to stabilize payment rates for physicians, hospitals, nursing homes and other medical professionals.
 If the Legislature raises the cigarette tax by the end of May, health care providers will be able to keep their doors open and maintain critical services to Oklahomans of all ages – not just those on Medicaid. It will also help prevent tragic job losses and further economic decline, especially in rural areas.
Let’s show we are serious about saving health care in our state. We urge every Oklahoman to contact their legislators and tell them to vote to increase the cigarette tax before the legislative session ends. Demand they put people above politics and do the right thing for the state.
Oklahoma’s future hangs in the balance.

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