Oklahoma Watch: Free clinics provide some health care for state's uninsured

Free clinics provide care for the uninsured in Oklahoma.
BY WARREN VIETH For The Oklahoman Published: January 27, 2013
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Jason, 37, a machinist, said he recently lost his job at a machine shop in Oklahoma City. Linda, 58, lost her job at a restaurant. The couple live on Jason's unemployment benefits, which adds up to about $18,000 annually but will run out before long.

“We're barely surviving,” Popielarski said. “I need a job. All I have is my motorcycle to get around. I'm working on weekends in trade for a place to live.”

Popielarski said he hasn't had health insurance in five years. Most machine shops nowadays don't provide it, he said. “Or if they offer it, you can't afford it.”

Free refills

The free clinic opens at 5 p.m. every Thursday, when the Pottawatomie County Health Department's paid staff goes home and Copeland's volunteers take over. It's supposed to shut down at 7 p.m., but that rarely happens.

Even though each Thursday two volunteer physicians are expected to take only 10 patients each, they generally wind up seeing more, and the pharmacy volunteers have their hands full dispensing drugs to 50 or so people who show up every week for refills.

Last year, clinic doctors saw 857 patients. The pharmacy team dispensed 5,362 prescriptions with a retail value of $186,000.

The clinic subsists on about $16,000 a year, of which more than $14,000 is used to buy medicine. Most of the money is donated by United Way. No government funding is involved, except for Copeland's half-time wages at the Health Department.

Pharmacist Mike Vorndran oversees the prescription refills. Most of the medications are for chronic conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. The clinic doesn't dispense pain pills or antidepressants.

Vordran gets some of the pills at no cost from doctors, who give him their free samples, and from nursing homes, which donate their residents' unused meds. He buys the remainder from distributors at heavily discounted rates.

“We see people who literally have to decide between buying groceries and buying their prescriptions,” he said. “I just felt that this was a way I could help alleviate some of that.”

They keep calling

As 7 p.m. approaches, Lena Garvin is still sitting in the packed waiting room, waiting patiently to get her prescriptions refilled. She said she's glad to be sitting anywhere, after the heart attack she experienced last July.

Garvin, 51, said she was preparing food at a restaurant in Yukon when her heart seized up. Her half-time job there paid $7.50 an hour.

She was not eligible for health insurance.

She was rushed to a hospital in Oklahoma City, where emergency room personnel inserted a metal stent in one of her coronary arteries. A few weeks later, they inserted a second one.

Garvin was told she was in no shape to return to work. Her doctor agreed to waive his charge. But she said the hospital is demanding $36,000 for her stay there. She has no way to pay unless Social Security approves her application for disability benefits.

She figures that's a long shot.

“I still get a call every day for the hospital bill,” she said. “Literally every single day. I tell them I've applied for Social Security, and I'm still waiting.”

Garvin, who lives in the country near Pink, also has diabetes and neuropathy, which causes numbness in her feet. She injects a half-dozen vials of insulin every month. She takes six or seven pills a day. She estimates the drugs would cost $700 to $1,200 a month if she did not receive free refills.

The last time Garvin went to see her heart doctor, she was told she needed a stress test. When she learned it would cost her $1,000, she declined.

“I won't be having that,” she said.

Too many people

Copeland's volunteer roster contains the names of about 80 doctors, nurses, pharmacists, technicians, clerks and other helpers. On any given Thursday evening, about 20 people pitch in.

But it's not quite enough to keep up with rising demand. On this night, five people will be told they'll need to wait at least a week to see a doctor.

“It's getting worse all the time,” said Ty Johnson, who shows up every week to handle patient intake. She bustles about the crowded clinic with a clipboard, calling out names and handing out paperwork. “We're getting more and more people.”

Not everyone makes the cut. To qualify, patients must be Pottawatomie County residents, must have no other form of insurance coverage, and must fall below income caps that are considerably lower than those contained in the Obama expansion plan.

“There is just more need than we can handle,” said Stephanie Scrutchins, who determines eligibility.

Copeland, for her part, doesn't even mention her connection to the governor, acknowledging it only after a visiting reporter brings it up.

“She's doing a good job,” Copeland said of her niece.

She also declines to discuss Fallin's rejection of the Medicaid expansion.

“You know, I don't get into politics,” she said. “I just run my little business here. Hopefully, we'll do all that we can for the people that come in. Right now I'm looking at all the returns I've got for next Thursday night, wondering how in the world we'll get them done.”


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