Think tank promises to save state $300 million

The state is always looking for ways to save money and one political think tank is offering answers to the budget dilemma. The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, or OCPA, released its annual budget book offering suggestions to lawmakers on how the state could save your tax dollars.

The budget book shows how lawmakers could save $300 million in the next year. However not all the solutions are easily accepted by policymakers. Some criticize OCPA as being too conservative. Leaders at OCPA say it is a nonprofit, non-partisan think tank and admits it isn't always popular with conservative lawmakers who control the House and Senate.

"They also spent money on things like rodeos, roping contests, festivals, fairs and aquariums," said OCPA's Jonathan Small pointing out earmarks put into previous budgets, "All kind of in a back room without clearly letting people know where that money is going."

Small says one of the biggest things the state could do to save money wouldn't actually cut anything. In fact, it would give state employees more options and could save the state $100 million. Those options would include where they could get outpatient surgeries performed. Right now state law limits the state's insurance program, but OCPA would like the state to be able to negotiate surgery prices by allowing employees to go to places like "The Surgery Center."

"The state has to finally improve the way it provides health insurance for employees," Small told Fox 25, "Those are easy changes that wouldn't cut care for anyone, but would save taxpayer dollars and make the program work better."

The Surgery Center advertises its prices for procedures online. Often they are a fraction of the cost of traditional hospitals and many times they are performed by the same doctors that perform surgeries for the metro's major hospitals.

However a bill that would have allowed for the additional option stalled out in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"The amount of savings were not ascertained," said Appropriations Chair Senator Clark Jolley (R, Edmond), "We have no idea how much it would save, if any."

Senator Jolley said he is not opposed to saving money, but said the bill as he read it would have required the state's insurance plan to create a new plan which he and other lawmakers believed was unnecessary. He says he saw no information that would point to the plan saving taxpayers.

"I would love to see that information because no one has provided any information to us to definitively show any dollar amount of savings that is precise and documented and verifiable," Jolley said.

The Office of Management and Enterprise Services, or OMES, said there were some concerns with the bill's language and they are reviewing it now. They hope the idea of adding surgery center options are not dead for this session. However supporters of the legislation say it was heavily opposed by groups and lobbyists representing doctors and hospitals.

"It is disappointing the self-professed conservatives haven't moved this forward and instead they are listening to people who write them campaign checks," Small said.

Jolley said he never met with any lobbyists from the hospital community on this legislation. "Not that I recall," Jolley told Fox 25, "I don't recall visiting with any hospital association lobbyists at the capitol on many issues this year at all."

Supporters of the bill say it became politically hot to handle as word got out among those in the hospital industry that make money off the state paying too much for surgeries.

"We want to make sure that Oklahomans know that lobbyists and crony capitalists are forcing taxpayers to spend too much for healthcare," Small said.

The OMES says there is a chance the reform language could be resurrected this session. However they admit overcoming the opposition will be a challenge as they work to make changes to the state's insurance program.

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