Lost in the great debate about adopting a state budget this week was the House conference committee's approval of changes in the state's Medicaid plan.

The landmark changes to the state's $700 million Medicaid program were the result of more than a year of study on House Bill 2842. Rep. Thad Balkman, R-Norman, was part of that committee. It now goes to the Senate budget conference committee.

But without an approved state operating budget, the $102 million plan will go nowhere next year. The ultimate goal is to empower Medicaid health care consumers, much like those of private insurers.

It would increase payment rates for doctors and hospitals that provide services for Medicaid patients. The low reimbursement rates keep many physicians from accepting Medicaid patients.

The system, as explained to us earlier this spring, expands the use of nurses and nurse practitioners on call. Such a system, in theory, will reduce the load at emergency rooms which are far more expensive to access for simpler health care needs.

It will also create an electronic database that makes access to medical records and prescriptions available online to providers. Besides reducing paperwork, it helps cut down on abuse and fraud in what is an ever-growing expense to the state.

The changes will be implemented in stages in pilot counties but are eventually planned for all of Oklahoma's Medicaid patients.

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