Oklahoma Health Department eliminates state funding for community health centers

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OKLAHOMA CITY - More bad news for Oklahomans who do not have health insurance.

This month, the State Health Department took away the state funding uninsured patients rely on for health care at community health centers.

It is another devastating side effect of Oklahoma's revenue failure.

About 175,000 Oklahomans use federally qualified heath centers (FQHCs) for primary, dental and mental health care services.

Community health centers do serve Medicaid patients and patients with health insurance, but they also provide quality, affordable care for Oklahomans who have neither.

Funding for the centers is provided through the Uncompensated Care Fund, which has been around since the 1980s.

Each year, the state appropriates several million dollars to the fund to help pay for health care for the most needy Oklahomans.

The Uncompensated Care Fund totaled about $3.8 million in 2009 and has been steadily shrinking ever since.

However, over the past seven years the population of uninsured Oklahomans has grown.

This month, the State Health Department cut all state funding for community health centers like Variety Care, a 100 percent cut to the Uncompensated Care Fund, which helps pay for uninsured Oklahomans to get basic health care services.

Community health care centers are now scrambling to find a way to keep the doors open.

They say they had no warning the state funding would be reduced to zero percent.

Most of the patients who are served by community health centers live below the federal poverty level.

"When you're talking about people in poverty, they're making decisions like whether to take care of their health or pay their rent," said Variety Care CEO Lou Carmichael. "This kind of a surprise cut makes it really hard to recover."

Officials at the State Health Department said they tried everything to maintain the funding.

"We were getting down to the bone," said Joe Fairbanks, the director of the health department's Center for Health Innovation and Effectiveness. "We tried to protect that as long as we could. It was absolutely one of the last things. We saved it as long as we possibly could."

The elimination of the Uncompensated Care Fund will save the health department about $700,000 for the remainder of the year.

Variety Care is now looking at cutting hours at their facilities and reducing services because of the loss of this funding.

It could potentially have a huge impact on uninsured Oklahomans like Delbert Brown, who pay on a sliding scale, $35 each visit to Variety Care for services.

"I don't understand, cut something that's doing good to line their pockets some other way," said Brown, who believes the state money spent on his care is well spent.

The Oklahoma Primary Care Association is lobbying for another way.

"We need to remember health for those individuals who might not have insurance," said Brent Wilborn, the public policy director for OPCA. "We need to see if we can find a way to insure more people in the State of Oklahoma."

"Patients who do not have access to care in a community health center will go to an emergency room (for primary care) which is the exact wrong door for primary care," Carmichael said.

The State Health Department reports, since 2009, they have seen a 25 percent cut in state funding to pay for vital health services for Oklahoma's most vulnerable population.


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