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WAGONER — Rural hospitals across Oklahoma are in crisis.

Each year, Oklahoma hospitals absorb more than $560 million in unreimbursed care for their uninsured and underinsured patients. Wagoner Community Hospital provided $4.3 million in free care to our local residents last year. Unfortunately, as we all know, these services are not really “free” — the costs are passed on to all of us in the form of higher insurance premiums.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, hospitals across the U.S. agreed to cuts of more than $155 billion in Medicare payments over 10 years. Hospitals understood these cuts would pay for low-income uninsured individuals’ health insurance coverage to reduce hospitals’ uncompensated care. Cuts in Medicare payments to Oklahoma hospitals will exceed $2.4 billion. Bringing these federal funds back to Oklahoma would strengthen each community’s health care safety net, and it would offer more of our working poor much-needed health insurance coverage. That would truly be a win-win for our state.

Yet, Oklahoma has rejected these funds. Instead of our federal dollars paying for health care in Oklahoma, we are paying for health care in other states. Many of our excellent doctors and nurses are leaving Oklahoma, too, and not coming back.

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The problem is especially acute in rural areas. Recent research by iVantage Analytics found there are 673 rural hospitals in the U.S. at risk of closure. Of those, 42 are in Oklahoma, the second-most in the nation behind Texas (which has 75). More than half of all Oklahoma rural hospitals are at risk!

Meanwhile, Oklahoma accepts federal dollars for road and bridge repairs, education, and disaster relief. That money benefits all of us, and so would federal dollars for health care. The Oklahoma Hospital Association has proposed accepting available federal health care dollars to expand our proven Insure Oklahoma program, and that’s something we absolutely should do.

Insure Oklahoma is Oklahoma’s plan for providing health insurance for working Oklahomans. Accepting available federal funds for Insure Oklahoma would bring $9.9 billion back to Oklahoma and add 24,000 more jobs to our economy over an eight-year period. In addition, state and local tax revenue would increase $620 million, and more than 234,000 Oklahomans would gain health insurance.

Taking back our federal health care funds is more critical than ever before. As our state faces a serious economic downturn and a huge budget shortfall, it is important to note that, under the Oklahoma Hospital Association’s plan, for every $1 Oklahoma puts in, $9 return to the state. That’s money Oklahoma sorely needs.

Accepting federal funds will also help keep rural hospitals open, improve the health of Oklahomans and help small businesses compete. We cannot afford to leave that money on the table any longer. If you agree we must take back our federal funds to build on Insure Oklahoma and make our state better for everyone, join the movement at makeOKbetter.org.