Tahlequah Daily Press

November 7, 2012

Vital NeoHealth mission needs to stay intact


Staff

TAHLEQUAH — Later this month, NeoHealth board members will consider appointees for three newly-created board slots, but perhaps more importantly, they’ll be looking at four candidates for the chief executive officer position.

Several well-qualified people are on the short lists for these posts, but an impressive resume isn’t the only consideration.

When it comes to this unique multi-county health care entity, the motive for serving is just as important as the ability to do it.

The Northeastern Oklahoma Community Health Center – now NeoHealth – was incorporated Dec. 3, 2001, but the seeds were planted in the mid-1990s, when visionary individuals with the Cherokee County Community Health Coalition saw a need for affordable health care for low-income families.

Many area residents  – especially in Hulbert – took part in the drive to create the NeoHealth system. When the state Legislature in July 2001 created the Oklahoma Center for Rural Development at NSU, the pump was primed to grow new businesses, including what ultimately became NeoHealth.

Local lawmakers and community leaders have played key roles in helping establish a strong foundation, and NeoHealth has continued to thrive, adding vital services such as OB/GYN, pediatrics and most recently, pharmacy services.

Clinics are now located in Adair, Cherokee and Muskogee counties, with patients coming in from six surrounding counties.

But here’s the rub: NeoHealth is a nonprofit organization. Its mission is to provide care to folks in mostly rural areas, where health care sources might be limited, or where the people who need those services might not be able to pay for them. The sliding-scale fee assessment for NeoHealth has been a boon for the area’s most vulnerable families.

It’s easy to see why some people, and even other health care establishments, might feel somewhat threatened by NeoHealth.

A medical facility that must balance attention to its bottom line with the well-being of patients is part and parcel of a market-driven economy, but the pesky presence of a clinic that offers those same services at a far lower cost is a challenge some businesses wouldn’t like to face.

Northeastern Oklahoma residents have a legitimate reason to worry that NeoHealth could be subsumed by another business, entity or board, thereby losing its unique character and original mission. Sometimes businesses that want to crush their competition do so with hostile takeovers or outright purchase; other times, they can accomplish their goals subtly with a velvet glove, working from the inside-out.

Those who care about service to others should stay vigilant, and speak out to other board members, to ensure this doesn’t happen.

NeoHealth serves a critical niche in Northeastern Oklahoma – especially in Cherokee County and the neighboring region.

Any maneuvering that would put it under the control of another system might not just be disastrous for the many lower-income people it serves: It could create the kind of monopoly that strips individuals of their cherished health care choices. A good place to start: http://www.neohealth.org.

Those who are selected for these important positions should be committed to NeoHealth, its mission, and the lower-income people it serves.

They should also be committed to Neo’s independence from other private interests, because serving two masters is a practical impossibility.