Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker has received the “Rural Health Leader of the Year” award from the Rural Health Association of Oklahoma.
The award was presented at the Annual Awards Luncheon during the Oklahoma Rural Health Conference on May 29 at the Embassy Suites Hotel and Conference Center in Norman during the Oklahoma Rural Health Conference.
Baker was nominated by Kayse M. Shrum, president, OSU Center for Health Sciences, Dean, OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine, and Oklahoma Secretary of Science and Innovation. Shrum wrote in her nomination that Baker “has made expanding access to quality health care for the Cherokee people a top priority for his administration” noting his many achievements for rural health care, including the “crown jewel of the Cherokee Nation health system” a 469,000-square-foot health care center that will “transform the lives of Native people living in the Cherokee Nation’s 14-county jurisdictional area.”
“It will increase access to health care services for American Indians by serving more than 1 million patient visits a year,” Dr. Shrum wrote. She described a meeting in 2014 with Burns Hargis, president of Oklahoma State University, herself and Baker about the possibility of establishing an additional location of the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine in Tahlequah.
“Chief Baker immediately understood the magnitude of our proposal,” Shrum wrote. "Imagine recruiting medical students from rural Oklahoma, educating them in a completely rural environment, and then training them in the nation’s largest tribally-operated health system.”
The partnership led the Cherokee Nation and OSU-COM to create the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation. Scheduled to open in 2020, the planned 84,000-square-foot medical school facility on the W.W. Hastings Hospital campus will be the first of its kind, “a pioneer in rural-focused, tribally-affiliated medical education,” according to Shrum.
The award was presented by Brian Woodliff, treasurer of the Rural Health Association of Oklahoma, whose mission is “promoting rural health in Oklahoma through advocacy, education, and leadership.”
In his acceptance speech, Baker said he has made a commitment to “homes, health, and hope” for Cherokee people. He said almost 700 new homes have been built for Cherokee Nation citizens. He also advocated for and received $1.5 million allocation from Cherokee Nation business profits, directly invested into health care. As chief, Baker authored an executive order to establish maternity leave for expecting mothers, created family leave for Cherokee Nation foster parents, and raised the minimum wage for tribal positions.
Baker graduated from Tahlequah High School and Northeastern State University. He has owned a small business for 40 years, and lives in Tahlequah with his wife, Sherry. They have six children, 14 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
Other recipients chosen by the RHAO Board of Directors this year were: “Rural Physician of the Year,” Michael Aaron of Weatherford; “Rural Health Educator of the Year,” Lt. Morgan Greutman of Talihina; and “Rural Health Advocate of the Year,” Sommer Robins, assistant district attorney of Jackson County.