As the Seventh Osage Nation Congress convened for its Jan. 15 special session to consider amending the Health Benefit law, Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear provided an update on the benefit program to the Legislative Branch.
The Nation’s Health Benefit program includes a debit card available to eligible participants which includes annual benefit amounts of $500 for Osages under age 65 and $1,000 for Osage elders age 65-plus to spend on health-related expenses. For the 2021 fiscal year, Congress appropriated a $10.1 million replenishment for the health benefit program and $990,000 is set aside for third-party administrative costs.
The special session, called by a legislative proclamation, to clarify language in the Health Benefit law also comes as the Nation enters a new calendar year with an enrollment/ re-enrollment period now in place annually for the Health Benefit card programs. During the single-day special session, the Congress voted 12-0 following debate, discussion to approve bill ONCA 21-14 (sponsored by Congresswoman Paula Stabler) which seeks to clarify the enrollment period and to authorize the two years of accrued benefits (2019 and 2020) for those who use the Nation’s health benefit program.
ONCA 21-14’s passage comes nearly three months after Congress passed amendments to the Health Benefit Act to establish an annual enrollment/ re-enrollment period (Oct. 1 to Dec. 15) for the following calendar year after passing bill ONCA 20-79 (sponsored by Congresswoman Jodie Revard) during the 2020 Tzi-Zho Session. Also, during that fall session, Congress passed ONCA 20-83 (sponsored by Stabler) “to prohibit the accrual of unused health benefits,” which ceased the rollover of unused health benefit funds from one year to the next.
Congressional Speaker Angela Pratt said “the majority of Congress chose to address the unfunded liability situation and manage these direct assistance benefits by including an enrollment period deadline” for the health benefit program when ONCA 20-79 was passed during the fall 2020 session. “It was my understanding that this special session was called in communication with the sponsor of the bill to provide language clarity for the intent, which the intent, in my opinion with the conversations that I’ve had, the intent of the majority of this Congress was to never cut the rollover off... it was to phase it out over the next two years. But there’s been discussion to provide language clarity, so that’s my understanding what we are here to do today – to provide that language clarity for the intent of this bill.”
After debate and discussion on proposed amendments to ONCA 21-14, the Congress voted 7-5 on an amendment proposed by Congressman John Maker to reinstate two years of accrued health benefits for elders. Standing Bear signed ONCA 21-14 to take effect following a final vote of the bill during the session.
With a deadline/ enrollment period now in place for the Health Benefit program applications, the amended Health Benefit law also notes: “Applications may be accepted past the enrollment deadline upon applicant experiencing a life event of the birth of a child, the legal adoption of a child or being named a guardian of another person by a court of law.”
In his executive message to Congress at the start of the Jan. 15 special session, Standing Bear reiterated the annual health benefit funding request amount is based on projections. As for enrollment in the health benefit program, Standing Bear reported:
- Enrollment in the health benefit program in January 2020 was at 10,129 Osages.
- By December 2020, over 5,000 more Osages enrolled with the program.
- The total in December 2020 stood at 15,493 members who enrolled.
- As of January 2021, the enrollment stands at 13,283 members for the health benefit program.
In addition, Standing Bear said there are an additional 215 members with incomplete applications seeking additional information before approval.
For the Health Benefit rollover, Standing Bear said his office’s projections are showing the unfunded liability for 2020 to be $3,623,689 and for 2019, the unfunded liability is $2,001,351 for a projected total of unfunded liability at $5,625,040.
“Now what does unfunded liability mean? ... When you look on your card, you will see a rollover amount. Those numbers are just numbers, they are not backed up by money. And if everybody was to use their rollover, we’d have to have the liability funded by an appropriation from the Congress,” Standing Bear said. “So, we have an unfunded liability of $5,625,000 and that number is to do nothing but grow unless the rollover was phased out.”
Standing Bear noted his report does not include the Medicare Plan F and Part D prescription drug coverage benefits which are available to Osages age 65 and over. Those who participate in these two programs cannot receive the annual $1,000 health benefit debit card.
For more information regarding ON Congressional regular or special sessions, filed legislation and Congressional committee meetings, visit the Legislative Branch website at www.osagenation-nsn.gov/who-we-are/legislative-branch