Rural Oklahoma medical clinic struggles to find doctors

By Jaclyn Cosgrove, The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

July 31--CHEROKEE -- Tim Starkey hopes he can keep recruiting doctors to come to rural Oklahoma.

That job was already difficult for Starkey, the CEO of the nonprofit Great Salt Plains Health Center. He competes for physicians with the private sector, which can often offer doctors a larger salary and other perks.

However, recent federal budget cuts have made Starkey's job even more difficult.

Because of federal sequestration, funding of the National Health Service Corps program was cut by $15 million, or 5.1 percent, in 2014, according to the Association of Clinicians for the Underserved.

The program repays student loans of medical professionals who work in medically underserved areas, including rural Oklahoma.

For the past few years, the program has helped Starkey bring medical professionals to Great Salt Plains Health Center to practice medicine.

Starkey said because of the budget cuts, the medical professionals at Great Salt Plains now won't have their loans repaid through the program.

"It's purely because of sequestration that we didn't get that loan repayment," Starkey said. "We actually are making their loan payments for them."

Sequestration's effect

The health center cannot do without providers, so footing the bill is one of the few options Starkey has.

The medical professionals at Great Salt Plains, which opened in 2008, are some of the only full-time physicians in the area.

The hospital in Cherokee, which is in northwest Oklahoma, closed about 20 years ago. Residents told Starkey after that happened, it was nearly impossible to get a doctor to come to Alfalfa County, which has an estimated 5,800 residents.

The first year of the clinic, Starkey recruited a doctor who lived in Enid.

"Cherokee is about 50 miles away -- I hired him to drive 50 miles a day one way to work in Cherokee, partially because he could receive the loan repayment from the federal government. He got his loan repayment two different times, and we kept him for six years."

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That doctor got most of his loans paid back and is moving to a job in Enid. Sometimes they stay, sometimes they don't, Starkey said.

"It's so difficult to get providers into Cherokee, particularly doctors," he said. "It's just important that we have additional benefits that will attract them and that money doesn't have to come out of our funds."

Great Salt Plains physicians provide primary, oral and behavioral health care, with uninsured patients paying on a sliding scale, based on their incomes. There are Great Salt Plains clinics in Cherokee, Medford and Enid.

About one-third of the center's patients are uninsured. The other two-thirds have either commercial insurance, Medicare or Medicaid.

Many of the patients that medical practitioners see at Great Salt Plains would have qualified for Medicaid if the state had expanded the program, a key provision of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, Starkey said.

"Expanding Medicaid would solve a lot of our health problems in the state of Oklahoma," Starkey said. "There are so many patients who are totally uninsured, don't go in for care anywhere and end up being a health train wreck in the ER. There's tons of expense in the ER because of that."


(c)2014 The Oklahoman

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