By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
Founded in February 2012, Voices Organized in Civic Engagement, or VOICE, is a coalition of 25 church congregations, nonprofits and schools that share a concern for Oklahoma City metro area families.
Over 1200 Oklahomans gathered to attend the VOICE founding convention.
Last April, VOICE held a Health Care Summit to discuss the many changes occurring in the healthcare system.
Jonalu Johnstone, Program Minister, First Unitarian Church, Oklahoma City and VOICE Health Care Action Team Chair said, “VOICE has conducted a listening campaign where we heard from hundreds of central Oklahoma citizens about the concerns relevant to their lives.”
Over 600,000 Oklahomans are without health insurance, including many low-income working adults who don’t earn enough to buy insurance or their employers don’t offer it.
“Recognizing that our nation is experiencing a historically large change in healthcare policy that is designed to make insurance more accessible,” said Johnstone. “These changes may bring many new challenges, both positive and negative. We are committed to working toward quality health care that is affordable and works for individuals, families, and small businesses.”
Issues of particular concern for members include older workers losing jobs and not finding jobs with health care benefits; the high cost of insurance for small businesses; full-time working poor families and individuals without access to health care; and health care issues related to undocumented families and individuals.
The summit recognized other challenges such as: Finding providers who accept Medicaid, Medicare, and/or Insure Oklahoma. The inadequate mental health and substance abuse services. The need for continuity of care for long-term, chronic issues. The quality and cost of health care in the Oklahoma County Jail. And what occurs when employers cut work hours to avoid providing health care.
Johnstone said, “Based on these concerns, we propose the following priorities: work toward the state accepting Medicaid expansion money, create clearer paths for young people and older workers to receive training/education for good-paying healthcare-related jobs, and work with public officials to improve health care in jail and in the prison system.”
Since the summit, VOICE has worked with Rep. Doug Cox and Sen. Brian Crain, who co-authored Senate Bill 640 to provide a way to allow those being served by Insure Oklahoma, set to expire on Dec. 31, would continue to have access to healthcare. The bill was not acted on by the end of the session.
The two state lawmakers are now calling for special session to address the issue.
“Presently, the Cox/Crain plan is available for consideration during the next session, which begins in February 2014,” Cox said. “Unless the Governor chooses to address the issue in a Special Session, no action will be taken before then.”
Johnstone says that although this effort was not well received by the legislature, VOICE members continue to collect petition signatures for Medicaid expansion and are addressing their concerns to the governor.
“We have kept alert to the movements of the system, with a dozen of our leaders attending the recent presentation of the Leavitt Report on health care, which recommended a system not dissimilar from what Rep. Cox and Sen. Crain proposed,” Johnstone added.
VOICE has also created action teams for public education, Immigration, prison justice and public transportation.
Heather Sparks, Oklahoma City Public School Educator said, “Working as co-chair of the VOICE Education Action Team has shown me that people in the community truly care about public education. As a teacher, it is refreshing to see the community’s willingness to tackle important issues such as family and community involvement, and violence and bullying in schools.”
Father Mike Chapman, Pastor, Holy Angels Catholic Church said, “I joined VOICE and encouraged our congregational leaders to do so because of the nature of our parish. We are a largely Hispanic Catholic community with many first generation migrants.
“VOICE has given us a ‘voice’ in public schools, incarcerations, and immigration questions. Working with non-immigrants from other faith traditions has been a good experience for our members.”
VOICE President and First Unitarian Church of OKC President, Sundra Flansburg said, “Our most important accomplishment so far has been building an organization that has crossed the lines that usually separate people — race, ethnicity, religious, political, economic, educational — to bring people together to act from their religious traditions and ethical concerns.
“Together, we’ve helped to defeat a proposed OG&E rate increase, we’ve worked at the legislature to stop harsh anti-immigration legislation and we’ve won the commitments of school board members to activate their Community Advisory Boards at local schools to increase community involvement in public schools.”
VOICE leaders feel the state has not properly prepared families for the changes the Affordable Care Act will bring, such as signing up for insurance plans through the exchanges.
Flansburg said, “First Unitarian is organizing an Affordable Care Act Seminar to educate people in a nonpartisan and fact-based way about how the ACA will really affect their family’s healthcare, and how it will affect the insurance being offered by small businesses.”
The VOICE ACA Seminar is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 10, from 10 – 11:30 a.m. at First Unitarian Church, 600 N.W. 13.
“As we continue to grow in size and in diversity, the specific focus of our work will evolve, but the vision remains steady,” Flansburg added.
For more information, visit www.voiceokc.org.
VOICE alliance continues listening campaign effort to solve issues facing OKC families
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