Democratic viewpoints on politics, policy and activism

Learn about important bills on the sixth legislative scorecard

( – promoted by OKWatchdog)

I have published another scorecard for the 2010 session.They run regularly during and shortly after each legislative session in The Edmond Sun newspaper. Highlighted bills include “opting out” of health care reform, funding rural ambulance services, requiring roofers to have insurance and loosening charter school sponsor requirements.

Senate Joint Resolution 63

Summary: This resolution authorizes the leaders of the state House and Senate to sue the federal government over the health care reform bill.

Vote: Passed House 63-19; passed Senate 29-17.

Our take: It’s interesting how legislators rail against “frivolous” lawsuits and then prepare to spend millions in taxpayer money suing the government or setting up the state to be sued. Having principles is laudable; so is knowing when a fight is too costly and/or unwinnable. Regardless of how you feel about health-care reform, this lawsuit is unnecessary. Filing an amicus brief would have been sufficient. All it will take is for one state to prevail, although we still believe this is an unlikely outcome. But, hey, it’s an election year, and Obama-bashing is obviously good politics. This bill came about after Gov. Brad Henry vetoed a resolution that would have allowed Oklahomans to “opt out” of health care reform. This resolution didn’t require the governor’s signature.

House Bill 2331

Summary: This bill allows law enforcement officers to impound vehicles of uninsured drivers.

Vote: Passed House 93-3; passed Senate 41-4.

Our take: We’ve said before that insurance laws need to be better-enforced. We just hope that the instant verification system is up-to-date and accurate so people with insurance don’t have their cars impounded. Having said that, this bill is a step in the right direction in a state in which 24 percent of drivers are uninsured, according to a study by the Insurance Research Council.

Next step: Awaits governor’s action.

House Bill 3029

Summary: This bill lifts a number of mandates on schools for two years, including eliminating penalties for not meeting class-size requirements, and delaying textbook adoption.

Vote: Passed House 64-36; passed Senate 39-7.

Our take: House Speaker Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, said the legislation allows school districts to spend more money on academics during a fiscal shortfall. Several legislators said they were concerned about a two-year moratorium on applications for National Board certification for teachers and whether standards that the Legislature previously approved would be brought back in two years. Times are tough for schools. We hope that this bill saves teachers’ jobs. If it doesn’t, it will have been misrepresented.

Next step: Awaits governor’s action.

Senate Bill 1862

Summary: This bill expands the number of potential charter schools.

Vote: Passed House 67-28; passed Senate 33-14; governor signed.

Our take: Charter schools can be a good thing, but they’re not a cure-all for the education system. Some are excellent, some are average and some are lacking – just like the public schools they operate alongside. Another bill Gov. Brad Henry signed, HB 2753, also expands potential charter school sponsors to include districts with sites on the school improvement list.

Senate Bill 2180

Summary: This bill requires roofers to be licensed and carry liability insurance.

Vote: Passed House 83-4; passed Senate 43-0.

Our take: After the recent tornadoes and hail storms, Attorney General Drew Edmondson warned Oklahomans about the shoddy, fly-by-night home-repair companies that spring up after devastating weather. Licensing is a step toward ensuring that Oklahoma homeowners aren’t cheated by disreputable roofers and have a recourse if something goes wrong.

Next step: Awaits governor’s action.

House Bill 1888

Summary: A carryover from 2009, this bill allows local governments to raise money for ambulance services.

Vote: Passed House 91-2; passed Senate 45-0.

Our take: Rural ambulance services are continuing to fold, a situation that is made worse by the duty to respond to calls within their territory and the number of patients who can’t pay or are on Medicaid. No one likes taxes or additional fees, but ensuring an ambulance is available when needed is of the utmost importance. The carrot in this bill is the ability to raise funds; the stick is lifting the duty to respond to counties that haven’t submitted emergency services plans. This seems like a fair compromise.

Next step: Awaits governor’s action.

Op-ed on domestic violence/insurance bill in the Oke

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On Friday, The Oklahoman published an op-ed on SB 1251, which prohibits insurers from considering domestic violence to be a pre-existing condition.

You’ve seen a lot of these arguments before, but this publication gives them wider reach.

Apart from obviously being good public policy, SB 1251 is perhaps the sole example of consumer-friendly insurance legislation to remain alive during the current legislative session. It’s this bill or nothing this year.

Here’s the first paragraph. Go to News OK at the following link to read the rest.

Domestic violence bill merits support

BY JEFF RAYMOND

Published: May 7, 2010

When Oklahomans think of pre-existing conditions, they think of cancer, diabetes and heart disease. They also should think about domestic violence. A bill in the Legislature would add Oklahoma to the 42 states with laws to prohibit domestic violence from being a pre-existing condition.

http://newsok.com/article/3459424

Rally at the state Capitol to discuss budget fixes

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Budget cuts are already having a painful impact on state government, but the worst is yet to come.

The state must make due with some 25 percent less in revenue than before the economic downturn took hold. This amounts to an $800 million to $850 million shortfall for the upcoming budget year, the Oklahoma Policy Institute predicts. Revenue may not recover to 2008 levels until 2013.

State agencies already have made across-the-board cuts, and the dismal picture means they likely will have to make additional cuts of up to 12 percent.

Hundreds of concerned Oklahomans will rally Wednesday at the state Capitol to demand common-sense solutions to the state’s budget crisis without raising taxes or crippling vital services.

Legislators must understand now is the time to make the tough choices they signed on for when they sought public office.

Oklahomans deserve an honest look at what can be done before nursing homes, public safety, education and health care are further harmed.

If you are in Oklahoma City and are available, please consider attending the rally.

What: “Solutions for the Life of Oklahoma!” rally

When: Wednesday, May 5, at 10 a.m.

Where: Oklahoma State Capitol, 1st floor

E-mail ona.ed@oklahomanurses.org to RSVP. T-shirts cost $5 each.

The Oklahoma Policy Institute has done a super job tracking the state’s budget woes and offering realistic solutions.

They include:

   * Eliminating the deduction of state income taxes

   * Revisiting the vendor sales tax discount

   * Taxing Internet and other out-of-state sales

   * Examining tax credits and their effectiveness

By far the largest category is tax credits. With the state budget in shambles, now is the time to take a critical look.

Consider this: The state appropriated slightly less than $7 billion in 2008, OKPolicy reports. That same year, the state granted at least $5.6 billion in tax credits, deductions and other reductions in taxes that otherwise would have been paid.

The Legislature has had little stomach for addressing tax credits, which have grown tremendously in recent years. Although some of these tax credits have been successful, others amount to little more than unchecked corporate welfare and deserve to be scuttled.

While these suggestions wouldn’t close the state’s budget hole, they would make cuts less painful. These and other ideas will be the subject of Wednesday’s rally.

Regardless of whether you attend or not, please consider calling your elected officials to tell them how you think they should address the state’s budget problems.

Lucky Lamons scores daily double

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Rep. Lucky Lamons, D-Tulsa, recently achieved a rare feat – he simultaneously (although indirectly) took on federal health care reform and health insurance companies with the same amendment.

Prior to session, Lamons introduced legislation to require insurance companies to continue to cover mammograms (mammography coverage was enacted in 1988) regardless of what federal advisory panels determine. This was in response to the ill-timed report from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force that recommended that women younger than 50 don’t need routine mammograms, a change from current practices.

When the task force issued its guidelines last fall, health care reform opponents seized on them as an example of the care rationing that reform would bring. The task force was caught flat-footed by the intense public outcry.

Lamons’ initial legislation didn’t get very far. The retired Tulsa police officer waited patiently and tried last month to amend a bill to declare that insurance policies can’t be “subject to modification by insurers based upon studies or recommendations of medical research entities without specific approval of the Legislature.”

This was a direct result of the task force guidelines.

The amendment failed on the House floor. The surprising thing is that Lamons’ Republican colleagues didn’t embrace it. After all, the GOP has drawn a line in the sand regarding coverage mandates, and clearly is no fan of health care reform. Since no one is proposing eliminating mammography (at least publicly), this would appear to have been a no-brainer.

For his part, Lamons voted for a proposed opt-out of health care reform but later changed his vote to “no” when language was added in conference committee to allow the Senate president pro tem and House speaker to sue the federal government.

Apart from raising the very important question of whether health care costs may ever truly brought under control without rationing – whether from insurance companies, the government, rising co-pays/premiums or insufficient availability of physicians/hospitals – Lamons also clearly advocated for a coverage mandate.

“I believe any woman who has reason to think she may have breast cancer should be able to get a mammogram if her doctor orders one,” said Lamons, who serves on the Susan G. Komen board. The organization is dedicated to education and research about breast cancer.

In 1988, 42.9 percent of Oklahoma women over age 40 surveyed by the state Health Department reported having had a mammogram during the previous two years. By 2006 the percentage was 67.7. Although the improvement is due to a number of factors, insurance coverage obviously played a role and deserves credit.

State law requires insurance coverage of up to $115 for mammograms for women 35 and older.

Lamons’ actions show that politics and policy aren’t binary, although we are often led to believe that choices and opinions must be either-or. That’s something to keep in mind, especially when talking about health care.

A refreshing victory for open government

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The state Senate on Monday narrowly stopped a little-noticed push to close off access to public information. You’re probably familiar with the state employees birth dates mess, but other bills are aimed at reining in open government.

House Bill 1613, which passed the House but, refreshingly, failed in the Senate by a party-line 24-21 vote, makes a number of changes to confidentiality under the Insurance Code. The bill does some general housekeeping that, while seemingly unnecessary, also probably isn’t too harmful. Then it goes too far, shielding basic information not only from disclosure but from subpoena.

The bill could still be reconsidered in the Senate.  

In its more innocuous sections, the bill expands documents used in financial and market examinations of insurers. The body of law surrounding open records typically exempts “work papers,” internal documentation and other things that lead up to the sorts of determinations mentioned in the bill.

What’s the need to explicitly ban it? If I’m wrong about this information being confidential in Oklahoma (it is in Texas, where I spent years pursuing this sort of information as a journalist), please let me know. I don’t mind being told I’m wrong.

The most troubling part of this bill seems to be an attempt to protect a corner of the insurance market that is particularly susceptible to abuse. Discount medical plans technically aren’t insurance, although they’re often deceivingly marketed as such. Because of this potential for flimflam, the Insurance Department requires them to register and regulates their marketing materials. Discount medical plans are basically an agreement with certain providers to offer discounts. You’re still responsible for all costs.

The discount medical plan language, however, is too broad. Even advertisements and solicitations are included. So a discount medical company can send run an ad that later proves fraudulent, which many people see, but those same people and the media can’t request copies of these materials because they’re “confidential.” It’s ridiculous. That’s like saying a press release is confidential after everyone has seen it. Solicitations and advertisements are meant to be seen by the public and are the primary means these companies recruit customers.

Imagine trying to sue a discount medical plan for deceiving you but being unable to subpoena the ad that led you to purchase the service. How could you build a case?

The bill’s Senate author, Cliff Aldridge, R-Midwest City, who works as an insurance agent, said in committee that the bill was intended to keep “anyone just walking in off the street and requesting it.” That’s a pretty lame excuse for closing the door to public information, especially considering that the insurance industry already can share much of this same information. I respect the need to keep trade secrets confidential, but c’mon. This threat is imaginary. The average Joe has never filed an open records request and never will. And the media rarely scrutinizes the insurance business.

Meanwhile, tons of information is available for commercial purposes. Remember those stories in The Oklahoman and Tulsa World about the state selling records that contain birth dates….

Aldridge said he didn’t intend to shield information needed in criminal proceedings. What about civil proceedings? Cases involving insurance shenanigans are typically tried in civil courts; criminal cases are rare by comparison.

I’ll be the first to admit that there are far more troubling bills coming out of the Legislature this year. But I’d be remiss if I weren’t concerned about the overall effect of incremental tightening of public access to the government’s data. A little bit here, a little bit there, pretty soon there are only crumbs.

In a March 23 editorial in The Edmond Sun newspaper, the bill’s House author, Rep. Randy McDaniel, R-Oklahoma City, praised transparency, sunshine and a bill that creates the Government Website Information Act. While it’s a laudable bill, what the Legislature giveth with one hand, it taketh away with the other.

Committee unexpectedly approves domestic violence insurance bill

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A House committee yesterday unexpectedly approved a bill to prohibit insurance companies from denying policies and coverage to victims of domestic violence.

Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Tulsa, who chairs the House Economic Development and Financial Services Committee, had not planned to consider Senate Bill 1251, which passed the Senate unanimously last month. The bill wasn’t on the agenda, but Sullivan relented after taking heat from concerned Oklahomans and being ripped in a press release from Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, the bill’s House author.

“Once again, the leadership of the Republican Party in the Oklahoma House of Representatives has shown that it holds the interests of insurance companies above the well-being of Oklahoma citizens,” Rep. Brown said in his statement.

There was plenty more, but there’s no need to further hammer Rep. Sullivan as he, ultimately, did the right thing. Prior to hearing the bill, Rep. Sullivan claimed that he wasn’t siding against domestic violence victims but, instead, was concerned that the bill was a mandate.

Let’s call it for what it is: Yes, it’s a mandate. So are financial solvency requirements and the COBRA insurance portability law. I seriously doubt too many Oklahomans would favor eliminating them, however.

The bill must clear the House floor by April 22. If it passes intact, it goes straight to the governor.

The bill’s opponents have consistently argued that there is no record of insurance companies denying care because of domestic violence. Setting aside for a moment the fact that such discrimination can extend beyond health insurance into homeowners insurance, life insurance, etc., Insurance Commissioner Kim Holland currently prohibits insurers from inquiring on policy applications about domestic violence status.

However, should Commissioner Holland could change her mind, leave office, or have the Legislature or courts undercut her rulemaking authority, the prohibition likely would be jeopardized.

It’s worth noting, too, that a woman who has been denied a policy or care once insured because of domestic violence may have no idea that her past was the cause. It’s likely that women who have been denied care don’t know why. And it’s almost certain that at some point not too long ago, domestic violence was allowed to be considered for insurance underwriting.

Awareness of the importance of domestic violence prevention is relatively recent. There is no reason to believe that Commissioner Holland’s predecessors were all as enlightened as she about domestic violence.

Pre-existing conditions are eliminated under the recently approved health care reform bill, but this provision doesn’t take effect until 2014, and many of its provisions will be up to state legislators and regulators to interpret and enforce. That’s one reason we need laws such as SB 1251 on the books now.