The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced just under $64 million in funding will be divided and awarded to 21 community health centers in Oklahoma as part of President Biden and congressional Democrats' American Rescue Plan COVID-19 relief package.
“Every American should have the security of knowing they have access to quality, affordable health care, especially as we face a pandemic that has exposed the disparities facing rural, minority, and lower-income communities,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement. “The Biden Administration is committed to getting help to those who need it most, and the communities hit hardest by COVID-19 will benefit from these critical investments.”
Among the recipients are Tulsa's Community Health Connection and Morton Comprehensive Health Services.
"We're really thrilled to be included in this act, because health centers are doing incredible work across our state," said CEO Susan Savage of Morton, which is slated to receive roughly $5.6 million.
Savage said the funding, which can be used for coronavirus-related activities including vaccinations, testing and public health education, will be a lifeline for Morton's operations.
"The staff costs of administering the vaccine have skyrocketed for us," Savage said. "If we're doing, as we have been, 1,000 vaccines we're administering, in addition to our primary care, dental, optometry, behavioral health ... that has tremendous implications."
CEO Jim McCarthy of Community Health Connection, expected to receive roughly $4.4 million, agreed.
"We have been pushing our staff, asking our staff to stretch, asking our staff to balance every day -- Should I be treating this patient with acute diabetes, or should I dedicate my resources today to doing vaccinating?" McCarthy said.
"Although community health centers have always received bipartisan support from the feds, from Congress, it's unfortunate we don't receive virtually any support from the state of Oklahoma," McCarthy said. "So, we were very happy to receive it."
Many of the health centers receiving funds operate in rural Oklahoma, including East Central Oklahoma Family Health Center, which has been awarded $1.6 million for its facilities in Wetumka, Wewoka and Henryetta.
"It was kind of a little bit of amazement," CEO Donna Dyer said of her reaction to receiving news of the funding, which she said could have a very significant impact on the clinics' ability to serve patients.
"I'm kind of a dreamer. I can kind of think about what the future would look like if I had this or that. So there's some very big possibilities," Dyer said.
Dyer, like the two Tulsa CEOs, said staffing has been a significant challenge over the course of the pandemic for her system, but that the funding could also potentially help her clinics in purchasing sufficient personal protective equipment, the prices of which she said have raised precipitously.
In all, the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan includes over $6 billion in funding for health centers nationwide. The package was opposed by Oklahoma's two U.S. senators, Republicans Jim Inhofe and James Lankford, as well as all five members of Oklahoma's all-GOP House delegation: Reps. Stephanie Bice, Tom Cole, Kevin Hern, Frank Lucas and Markwayne Mullin.
According to HHS, "Health centers serve 1 in 5 people living in rural communities, and 1 in 11 people nationwide. More than 91% of health center patients are individuals or families living at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, and nearly 63% are racial or ethnic minorities."