NORMAN — Two women from central Oklahoma have made a lasting impact on providing compassionate health care for vulnerable Oklahomans, and now their efforts have merged into a new era of care and an expansion of the safety net in central Oklahoma.
As many in Norman already know, Kathy Heiple started Health for Friends in 1985 in the rented garage of a former motorcycle dealership when in her work as a registered nurse, she encountered low income Oklahomans at health fairs and other events who were diagnosed with various health issues or concerns, but had no options for accessing the health care system. Health for Friends grew into a loving and important resource for the uninsured in Norman and Cleveland County. Dr. Bertha Levy was an Oklahoma City pediatrician who, over many decades, helped expand Variety Health Center, first founded by the Oklahoma City Junior League during the Great Depression, into a safe and accessible place for low income pregnant moms and their children to receive high quality health care. Dr. Levy died in 2007 but her imprint permeates the community health center now known as Variety Care, formerly Variety Health Center.
On June 1, Health for Friends became part of the Variety Care family, enabling the Norman clinics to offer more robust care to low income families in Cleveland County. Variety Care has 16 sites across Oklahoma County and rural southwest Oklahoma and now has three sites in Norman, which includes a wellness center at the Central Oklahoma Community Mental Health Center on Alameda. Soon a fourth Norman Variety Care location will open its doors, a school-based health clinic located at Longfellow Middle School.
Variety Care is a community health center, a 501(C)(3) non-profit business commissioned to provide high quality primary care to the medically underserved. Community health centers like Variety Care accept Medicaid, Medicare, and private insurance and also receive a federal grant to help cover the cost of uninsured persons. The Variety Care Foundation actively pursues other grants and contributions in order to keep care affordable to the uninsured and to offer services that may not be covered, or only partially covered, but that are critically needed, such as restorative dentistry, prescription assistance, vision care, behavioral and mental health and eyeglasses. Uninsured patients at community health centers pay according to a sliding fee based on income and size of household, and thanks to Norman Regional Health System and the United Way of Norman, we are able to reduce the co-pay to $10 for medical care for our neediest uninsured patients in Norman.
Variety Care saw more than 58,000 patients in 2012, in a full range of primary care services including medical, pediatric, dental, behavioral and mental health, vision, nutrition and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) services. The expanded resources that Variety Care is able to bring to the table will enable the former Health for Friends clinics to meet more of the need of the vulnerable in Cleveland County. As more and more families find their medical home at Variety Care in Norman, they will, as a result, stay healthier and utilize the hospital and emergency care system less and only for its most appropriate means: emergencies and surgeries.
This week is National Health Centers Week and the public is invited to visit Variety Care-Norman Family Practice, in the former Health for Friends building at 317 E. Himes, between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Wednesday and learn more about Variety Care and community health centers. We will be providing free health screenings and will also have refreshments, giveaways, and activities for the kids. Please join us.
Over time, the residents of Norman will experience firsthand the benefit of this convergence of these two remarkable women’s visions. Our services are the right thing to do morally for those who lack resources, and the smart thing to do fiscally to alleviate the costs on the overall health care system and the larger safety net. On behalf of all of us at Variety Care and the Variety Care Foundation, know how proud we are to continue the work started by Kathy Heiple and to being a part of the greater Norman community.
Andrew Rice serves as executive director of the Variety Care Foundation.