OKLAHOMA CITY — Officials announced Monday that lawmakers can’t continue to help subsidize the health care of tens of thousands uninsured Oklahomans.
The state Department of Health can no longer afford to fund the state’s $1.6 million uncompensated care fund, which is used to help subsidize patient care at 25 community health centers in rural communities and underserved urban areas, said Tony Sellars, a spokesman for the agency.
The nonprofit health centers, which provide basic health, dental, mental health and substance abuse treatment — regardless of an individual’s ability to pay — rely on the fund to help offset uncompensated costs from the state’s uninsured.
Nearly 1 in 3 of the more than 200,000 patients who came to the community health centers last year did not have insurance, said Brent Wilborn, director of public policy for the Oklahoma Primary Care Association, which represents 20 centers.
“Community health centers are located in medically underserved areas and provide invaluable services to their communities, but when state support disappears, community health centers are forced to scale back,” Wilborn said in a statement. “When communities lose access to affordable primary and preventive health care services, patients delay care until emergencies strike, and the high costs of uninsured emergency care are passed on to other providers and to the public in the form of cost hikes.”
When the uncompensated fund was cut in 2015, Wilborn said health centers had to reduce services and two locations in rural Oklahoma closed.
“Obviously, this is a step we don’t like to take, but given the current budget climate, we don’t think there’s any alternative at this point,” Sellars said.
Lawmakers have already slashed nearly $2 million from the health department’s more than $63 million budget. They’ve also warned the agency to expect additional cuts during the ongoing special session, he said.
In addition to defunding the health care, the department announced Monday that it will also end its child abuse prevention programs, and all employees making over $35,000 must take one furlough day every two weeks starting at the end of the month.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, are grappling with how to fill a $215 million budget hole they created after unconstitutionally passing a $1.50 cigarette tax. The proceeds were supposed to fund for health care, mental health and social services.
“State lawmakers should act quickly to provide funding to protect the Health Center Uncompensated Care Fund and to stabilize the Oklahoma health care system,” Wilborn said.
Lawmakers are in the fourth week of special session with no apparent budget agreement in sight.
Sellars said officials don’t know how much more lawmakers are going to cut from the budget, but they have to provide advanced notice ahead of the Nov. 15 end date.
“It’s a devastating blow,” said Joe Dorman, CEO of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy. “We’re going to see a lot of harm come to folks, especially in rural areas.”
Dorman, a former Democratic lawmaker, said many children rely on the health centers for care.
“They get these kids healthy, and if we have these kids not receiving the proper health treatment at any age, it’s going to have an impact on them as adults,” he said. “This is going to hurt the state for decades.”
Dorman said lawmakers need to act — and soon.
“This is probably just one more step going down the path until the state collapses upon itself financially,” he said.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.