The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Local and State News

January 26, 2013

Free clinic microcosm of Oklahoma's health coverage challenge

SHAWNEE, Okla. — Inside a cramped clinic office, Dorthea Copeland prepares for the weekly pilgrimage of poor people seeking free health care. They’re already lining the hallway, trading tales of sore throats and bum tickers.

“Some of these people just lost their insurance. Some of them work, but don’t make very much. Some of them are self-employed,” said Copeland, a feisty 85-year-old who’s been running Pottawatomie County’s free clinic since it opened 14 years ago.

“You can usually tell by looking at them that most of them really need the help.”

Copeland is in charge of recruiting doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other helpers who donate their time on Thursday evenings to help Pottawatomie County residents who don’t have health insurance and don’t qualify for government assistance.

Coincidentally, she’s also the aunt of Gov. Mary Fallin, who grew up in Tecumseh as Mary Copeland. In November, Fallin rejected an Obama administration offer to finance much of the cost of expanding Oklahoma’s Medicaid program. If Fallin had accepted, many of the people filing into the clinic this evening would be eligible to participate.

Pottawatomie County’s free clinic is a microcosm of the health coverage challenge facing Oklahoma policy-makers. Fallin’s decision to reject the Medicaid expansion has left an estimated 130,000 or more low-income Oklahomans in a coverage crater that offers few options for affordable health care. The problem tends to be more pronounced in smaller towns and rural areas, where incomes often are lower and employers less likely to offer benefits.

Asked to comment on the clinic operation, Fallin praised the work Copeland and others are doing, describing her aunt as “a wonderful lady who has spent much of her career dedicated to helping other Oklahomans.”

The governor said she is looking for ways to address the coverage crater, but remains convinced the Obama initiative is “unaffordable and unworkable.” Even with the federal government picking up much of the tab, Fallin’s office contends the expansion would increase state spending by $689 million over 10 years. Advocates of expansion counter that the cost to the state would be minimal.

Fallin said she would propose a “substantial increase” in health funding when the Legislature convenes in February. State health officials, meanwhile, have hired a Utah consultant to make recommendations for possible legislative action this year.

For several thousand uninsured people in Pottawatomie County, Copeland’s free clinic is still the best thing going.

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