CHEROKEE, Okla. — Serving those being underserved is the focus of Great Salt Plains Health Center (GSP), which started in Alfalfa County but has continued to expand into several other surrounding counties.
“We are focused on communities that don’t have hospitals or clinics,” said Tim Starkey, CEO of GSP since 2008.
The former hospital administrator from Guymon started out with five employees at GSP’s original site in Cherokee. More than a decade later, GSP has 80 employees at four locations.
Making health care affordable
Great Salt Plains Health Center’s mission “is to increase access to comprehensive primary and preventive health care to all and to improve the health care status of under served and vulnerable populations within GSP Health’s geographical area.” The company’s website motto is better access and better care equals better health.
In layman’s terms, GSP wants to make health care accessible and affordable to the rural residents of Northwest Oklahoma, Starkey said.
“We can see anyone,” he said, insured or not.
So how can they do that?
Great Salt Plains Health Center is a nonprofit medical organization that is a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC). As a FQHC, GSP can receive federal grant money to provide primary medical, dental and behavioral health services.
According to the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC), a unique and cost-effective health center model (FQHC) was created to lower health care costs and produce savings for the nation’s health care system and the American taxpayer.
Key traits of a FQHC are:
• Fees based on the patient’s ability to pay,
• Providing quality health care to all people regardless of insurance status or income level,
• Highly competent health care staff and professional teams,
• Community controlled, patient-majority boards of directors.
At present, FQHCs are in more than 11,000 rural and urban communities across America, delivering affordable quality care to more than 28 million people.
Beginning of care
Great Salt Plains Health Center Inc. began in 2007 as a 501©(3) when a group of Alfalfa County citizens learned about the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Bureau of Primary Health Care (BPHC)’s funding opportunity to create new FQHC sites in select high-poverty counties throughout the country.
GSP was awarded its first grant of $600,000 in September 2007, and the following year the original site in Cherokee opened at 400 S. Ohio, to provide medical services to low-income individuals in the area, Starkey said.
Another grant became available in 2009, so GSP remodeled the former Alfalfa County Hospital at 405 S. Oklahoma in Cherokee, constructing space for primary health care, counseling rooms and a dental clinic. Today this clinic has three primary medical providers, two behavioral health therapists and one dentist.
GSP expanded and began adding other sites as its board of directors became interested in offering similar opportunities to other rural communities like Cherokee, Starkey said.
When BPHC announced another chance to apply for new FQHC sites in 2010, Great Salt Plains Health Center applied to add a second site in Medford in Grant County, 38 miles east of Cherokee. The county had more than 4,500 residents who needed localized access to health care.
The New Access Point (NAP) funding was awarded 18 months later, and GSP in Medford opened its doors in 2011 with a nurse practitioner and a behavioral health therapist.
Conversations with longtime nurse Janet Cordell, who is the clinic coordinator for Enid Community Clinic, led to identifying a need to provide med ical services for the large Medicaid population in the Enid area, Starkey said.
He said GSP felt it could help those underserved, so a third site opened without federal funding in Enid next to the community clinic on East Broadway in 2014.
Two years later, the Enid site relocated farther east to 231 S. 30th in the newly renovated space of Varsity Square. Enid’s site now houses five primary medical providers and six behavioral health and psychiatric providers.
In 2016, Great Salt Plains Health Center was able to apply for another new FQHC site, this time for the town of Canton, in Blaine County, 55 miles south of Cherokee. Prior to that time, the 500 or so residents of Canton were being serviced for a half day once a week through Okeene Municipal Hospital.
The NAP funding was awarded for the fourth site, and GSP in Canton opened its doors in 2017 with two nurse practitioners and a behavioral health therapist.
Starkey said GSP’s budget is 60/40, with 60% funded through revenue such as insurance and private pay and 40% funded through grants aforementioned.
“NAP doesn’t come along very often,” he said. GSP is frequently asked by other small communities to consider opening another site. However, even if they build relationships in areas that want GSP and apply for NAP doesn’t mean GSP will get awarded the funding to do so.
Starkey relayed NAP only grants awards to 10% of those that apply, meaning 90% of applicants don’t receive funding.
One example, he said, was the college town of Tonkawa, which is more than an hour east of Cherokee in Kay County. Community members expressed interest in becoming a GSP site, but unfortunately GSP was not awarded any NAP funding when it applied.
Operating in a COVID-19 world
Right now, amidst the coronavirus pandemic, Great Salt Plains Health Center is focusing on continuing to steadily operate its four current sites — in person or through telehealth services — as well as its newly inducted mobile clinic.
GSP’s mobile clinic has the look of an ambulance van with an exam table and blood drawing stations.
“It’s a mini clinic on wheels,” Starkey said, adding the main purpose of investing in the mobile clinic was so GSP staff could administer the COVID-19 vaccination anywhere.
“We are in the process of administering 400 to 600 COVID-19 vaccines per week throughout our services area,” Starkey said.
To learn about what GSP has to offer, go to gsphealth.org.