AFTON — Oklahoma District 7 State Representative Ben Loring was joined by local health care leaders on Friday as he signed a citation acknowledging Aug. 7-13 as National Health Center Week (NHCW).

The week was proclaimed as NHCW by Afton Mayor Bill Harrison, who was unable to attend the signing of the citation.

Loring, a member of the Community Health Center of Northeastern Oklahoma board of directors, signed the citation at the Route 66 Health Clinic in Afton.

The clinic serves the tri-county region including Delaware, Ottawa and Craig counties, which is equal to about 70,000 eligible beneficiaries.

For the past 50 years, NHCW has aimed to create awareness of health center programs and the invaluable work they do in communities across the country to ensure Americans at every income level can get access to affordable health care.

Organized by the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC), National Health Center Week also aims to draw political attention to the need for continued funding for the nation's community health centers.

Patrick Peer, CEO of Community Health Center of Northeast Oklahoma, Inc. (DBA Route 66 Health Clinic in Afton) was also present for the citation signing and thanked Loring for his support.

"We know that we play a critical role in the lives of many local Oklahomans," Peer said. "That's why we work every day to empower our community and help everyone access quality, affordable coverage. Folks in the tri-county area should know that we are here to be a resource to them and answer any questions they have about how to change their family's health."

The Route 66 Health Clinic offers a sliding payment scale for patients based on family size and income. The facility accepts most insurance including Soonercare, Medicare and Medicaid.

According to the NACHC, health centers save the health system more than 24 billion dollars a year and reduce unnecessary hospitalizations. They treat patients for a fraction of the cost of one emergency room visit.

“Our healthcare system is not in the shape that it needs to be in,” Loring said. “For example, the number of people who go to the hospital, who don’t need to be visiting the hospital, need to be coming to clinics like this.

“It will help the hospital out because they have to serve every patient who comes in, but it’s a huge cost for them that they don’t get reimbursed for,” he added. “This is part of the reason why hospitals have the financial problems they have now.”

Peer said it is 10 times more expensive for a patient to go to the emergency room than it is for them to come to the clinic for primary care.

Health centers also provide a variety of enabling services like insurance enrollment, patient education, outreach, patient education and case management.

The Afton facility has ongoing enrollments every Thursday afternoon at the Oklahoma Works office in Miami, which give residents the opportunity to meet with enrollment experts for free to learn more about their coverage options and select a plan that fits their needs and budget.

Due in part to the work of health centers across Oklahoma, many District 7 residents have enrolled in quality, affordable health coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace, SoonerCare or Insure Oklahoma.

"Our goal is to be a true cornerstone of our community and a trusted healthcare resource to Oklahomans," Peer said. "The fact that we've seen a decline in the uninsured rate in far Northeast Oklahoma is a great start towards expanding access to quality care.

"But we know there's more work to be done, and we'll continue our efforts across the city to ensure that affordable health coverage becomes a way of life in our area," he added.

Over 24 million nationwide use health centers as their medical and health care home and that number is rapidly growing, said the NACHC. Seventy-one percent of people who use health centers live at or below the federal poverty level, tend to be members of minority groups and more than 75 percent are either uninsured or have coverage through Medicaid.

Health centers are especially critical because they remove barriers that may cause a patient to be unaware of their treatment options, not seek treatment for an illness or injury or make it impossible for them to seek treatment altogether.

For instance, community health centers are open to all residents regardless of their insurance status and are located in identified high-need areas with higher poverty levels and infant mortality where fewer physicians practice.

If an uninsured Oklahoma resident experiences a life-changing event, like having a baby, getting married or moving this year before enrollment opens again in November, they may qualify for a special enrollment period.

Individuals can use the Get Covered Connector at www.getcoveredamerica.org/connector to find and schedule an appointment with free, in-person enrollment assistance from Lee Hilliard, Outreach and Enrollment Specialist for the Community Health Center. Hilliard can be contacted at 918-219-4486.

Route 66 Health Clinic is located at 138 South Main Street in Afton. Hours of operation are from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Call 918-257-8029 for information or to schedule an appointment.

Kimberly W. Barker is a staff writer for the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at kbarker@miaminewsrecord.com. Follow her on Twitter @MiamiNews_hound.