Officials: Health Care Reform Brings Opportunity to Oklahoma

Article excerpt

The Oklahoma Health Care Authority's strategic planning meeting Thursday centered on a story.

A family is picnicking near the river, when they hear a cry from someone struggling to stay afloat in the water. A family member dives in and saves the person from drowning. The scenario plays out again and again until the family is exhausted and decides to go upstream to see what is causing so many people to be in the water, fighting for their lives.

That is Oklahoma's health care conundrum - too many people are struggling with poor health and lack of care that it's hard to go farther up the river to see what's causing the problems. But fixing the problem requires a focus on both.

"We have to address this as a comprehensive health care system," said Dr. Terry Cline, commissioner of the Oklahoma State Department of Health. "We can't neglect one part of the system to tend to the other part. You neglect any one part of the system, and you will fail. And right now, I can tell you, that Oklahoma is failing as a state."

Cline joined Mike Fogarty, CEO of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, and Terri White, Oklahoma secretary of health and commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, to launch the two-day strategic planning. In addition to addressing Oklahoma's bleak health care statistics and their financial burden, they tackled a looming concern: how to create a better health care system in Oklahoma in the context of health care reform and the federal money that will be available to do it.

"This is the opportunity where we can really change health in Oklahoma, unless we walk away from it," White said. "We can build a program - Oklahoma-designed, Oklahoma-controlled and Oklahoma- driven - that allows people to get their coverage and to decrease our overall costs tremendously."

Sobering statistics

Oklahoma's poor health statistics are taking their toll. The state's overall health ranking is 49th out of 50, Cline said. Oklahoma has the highest rate of cardiovascular disease in the nation and ranks in the bottom five in numbers of primary care physicians per 100,000 people. Oklahoma is 49th in the amount of fruits and vegetables consumed, and 50th in amount of physical activity. One in four Oklahomans smoke, and tobacco is the main preventable cause of death.

"If we continue to deliver very ill people to the health care system, it cannot keep up with the demand," he said. "There's not enough money and resources to meet that need unless we move upstream and deliver a healthier population."

The situation also is dire for mental health and substance abuse services. White said 609 people are waiting for services on any given day. But with millions ripped from her budget, the department must tell them to wait, she said. While they're waiting, their conditions worsen or they're incarcerated, both of which cause a bigger financial burden than a preventive approach, she said.

"People qualify for residential substance abuse treatment, and we tell them that all the beds are full but we'll put you on a waiting list," White said. …

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