OKLAHOMA CITY — Thousands of rural Oklahomans will have to drive further for medical care including vaccinations, help with family planning and basic checkups.

The state Health Department is closing five clinics — in Drumright, Lindsay, Buffalo, Beggs and Henryetta — the latest casualties of the state's ongoing budget crisis.

The clinics offer a range of services — such as wellness exams for women, screenings for cervical cancer and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases — sometimes regardless of an individual's ability to pay.

Department spokesman Tony Sellars said the agency is bracing for a cut as deep as 19 percent from its annual budget of $56.4 million — the effect of a $1.3 billion hole in the state budget.

Closing the clinics, which only open a few days each week, will save $77,600 a year.

The clinics provided service to more than 19,000 people last year. They will close in July.

The department operates 63 other locations across Oklahoma.

Sellars said employees at closed clinics will be transferred to other offices, which will likely see more clients as a result of the changes.

But health care experts worry that closing rural clinics especially hurts the poor, including families and the elderly, who rely on the offices for primary care including vaccinations to ward off potentially serious illnesses such as the flu.

“There are lots of families that may not have access to a primary care provider but have their immunizations done through a public health department,” said Andy Fosmire, vice president for rural health for the Oklahoma Hospital Association.

The closures are occurring in places with multiple health offices, according to the department, but Fosmire worries that longer distances will make it harder for low-income patients living in remote areas to access care.

"Twenty miles is a really long way when you’re walking," he said.

The 7,100 people who visited Garvin County’s clinic in Lindsay, for instance, now must travel 24 miles to the nearest clinic in Pauls Valley, according to the Health Department.

Buffalo residents must drive 23 miles to access the nearest health center in Laverne.

Health care experts said closing clinics could shift the burden for basic care to local hospitals.

Still, Fosmire said he doesn’t blame the health department.

“I am sure they did not make this decision lightly,” he said. “I’m sure it was not a decision they wanted to make. Eventually there is a rock and a hard place.”

Lawmakers have slashed the Health Department’s budget by a quarter since 2009, Sellars noted.

As a result the department has eliminated funding for new clinics, cut reimbursements to hospitals and doctors for treating the uninsured, and reduced staffing.

It has made a number of other smaller cuts, such as eliminating dental health education and reducing by half the resources for colorectal cancer screenings for the uninsured.

In July, it will close its office of child abuse prevention to save $2.5 million.

Sellars said the department is “cut to the bone, and any additional cuts will affect the services we are able to provide."

Sen. Clark Jolley, R-Edmond, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said it’s too early to say how deeply the department's budget will be cut.

But as lawmakers pump more money into education, he noted, other agencies must make do with less.

Jolley warned that if the state wants to avoid cuts to core services — such as education, transportation, public safety, public health and corrections — lawmakers must start looking for plans to fund the budget.

“Members are going to have to make very tough votes. They’re going to have to vote on changing tax code. They’re going to have to vote on tax credits," he said.

"They’re going to have to vote on cutting core government state agencies to try to mitigate cuts," he added. "There is no way to have your cake and eat it too in this budget situation."

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com

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