Census data shows parallel between poverty, lack of health coverage
BY CARY ASPINWALL & CURTIS KILLMAN World Staff Writers
Thursday, September 22, 2011
9/22/11 at 7:27 AM
For more about the 2010 Census data.
Anita Clanton waited patiently Wednesday morning to see doctors at the OU-Tulsa Schusterman Clinic to discuss her chronic pain because it's the only option she can afford.
Clanton, 50, works for a company setting up seasonal displays at Lowe's home improvement stores, but it pays $10 an hour and her employer doesn't offer health insurance.
U.S. Census data being released Thursday show a parallel between the numbers of Oklahomans living in poverty and those living without health insurance.
In 2010, 1 in 6 Oklahomans were living on incomes below the poverty level. And nearly 1 in 5 of the state's population did not have health insurance.
Both poverty rates and the percentage of those without health insurance coverage increased in Oklahoma in 2010, signs that a recovery had yet to take root here, according to data from the Census Bureau.
The rate of poverty among individual Oklahomans increased during 2010 to 16.9 percent from 16.2 percent during the prior year, according to the bureau's annual American Community Survey.
In all, some 616,610 Oklahomans had income levels below the poverty level in 2010 while the number of state residents without health insurance neared 700,000.
"Those (numbers) are pretty distressing," said David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a Tulsa-based think tank.
The percentage of Oklahomans without health insurance also crept up to 18.9 percent in 2010 compared with 18.7 percent in 2009.
Oklahoma has been making economic strides recently, but many residents are still struggling, Blatt said.
"Even though we have seen some encouraging economic signs over the last 12 months, we are dealing with a very impartial recovery, which is not extended throughout the population," Blatt said. "So we continue to see large numbers of people who are struggling to find work."
Oklahoma ranks No. 14 among states in the poverty rate among individuals. Individual poverty rates among states range from 8.3 percent in New Hampshire to 22.4 percent in Mississippi in 2010.
Blatt said recent declines in the unemployment rate give him hope that the poverty rates may decline next year.
"But I think we can expect it will be several years before we return to pre-downturn levels," Blatt said of the poverty rates.
Not including prescriptions, Wednesday's doctor visit cost Clanton $70, more than a full day's salary after taxes. She's looked into buying health insurance on her own, but it would cost at least $300 a month - more than one-third of her income.
She suffers from chronic pain related to injuries and fibromyalgia, and her job requires physical labor. Four years ago, she had a job that provided health insurance. But when she moved to the Tulsa area and changed jobs, she lost her health insurance coverage.
A few months ago, she stepped on a nail that went through her shoe and foot and had to go to the emergency room. The bill was more than $1,000, and she's still trying to figure out how to pay it.
"When you make $12,000 to $14,000 a year, $1,000 is just not going to happen," she said.
Dr. William Yarborough said his clinic has a six-months-or-longer waiting list for new patients in Clanton's situation - people who work, are living with chronic pain and do not have health insurance.
The Schusterman Clinic at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa campus reserves a number of spots for patients without health insurance seeking pain management. Discounted fees are charged on a sliding scale based on income, but appointments are hard to come by, Yarborough said.
Many doctors are reluctant to take uninsured patients who have chronic pain because those patients have limited resources to pay for treatment and may be more at risk to divert or sell their pain medications for profit, he said.
Demand is so great that he's had to turn down referrals from communities hours away for doctors looking somewhere to send uninsured patients in need of pain management.
Even in cases where someone may qualify for an assistance program for medical bills, it can take months for that assistance to become available, Yarborough said.
This week, he treated a man who has terminal bone cancer and is still working because he's been trying to get on disability for more than a year.
"The system itself does not accommodate a person with a devastating diagnosis," Yarborough said.
Many of his patients are still trying to work to pay the bills but are physically in poor shape with chronic pain and devastating injuries - people in their 40s or 50s who've done years of manual labor, damaging their backs, necks or knees.
"These are not predominantly people who don't want to work," Yarborough said. "I think the public has a misconception about who these folks are. They've had a lot of bad luck in many cases."
In Tulsa County, 16.3 percent of individuals had incomes below the poverty rate, an increase from 15 percent in 2009.
Those poverty numbers reflect the fact that many residents are underemployed or employed with inadequate wages to be self-sufficient, said Jan Figart, associate director at the Community Service Council. Many won't qualify for assistance programs because they work and make just enough money to be ineligible for such benefits.
"The families are one crisis away from bankruptcy, which can be delivered by an unexpected medical bill, because the parents don't have health insurance," she said. "Or just one more jump in their credit card rate to 29 percent - because of a late payment - that will put them over the edge."
More about the numbers ...
Original Print Headline: Painful reality of poverty
- Most area counties and cities included in the census survey also recorded increases in poverty rates from 2009 to 2010.
- Muskogee County was an exception to that trend. The poverty rate in Muskogee County declined from 22.6 percent in 2009 to 21.3 percent in 2010.
- The poverty rate in the city of Tulsa increased from 19.5 percent in 2009 to 20.1 percent in 2010.
- Oklahoma City was the only city in the Census Bureau survey that saw a decline in poverty levels, from 18.1 percent in 2009 to 16.8 percent in 2010.
- In addition to all states, the survey included data for all cities and counties with populations of 65,000 or more.
- A number of thresholds are used to determine poverty status, including the size of the family.
- For example, a family of three with one child and an income of less than about $17,400 for a 12 month period in 2010 would be considered below the poverty threshold.
Cary Aspinwall 918-581-8477 Curtis Killman 918-581-8471
Dr. William Yarborough conducts a follow-up visit with patient Anita Clanton, who suffers from chronic pain, in an exam room at the OU-Tulsa Schusterman Clinic. Clanton's employer does not offer health insurance. MICHAEL WYKE/Tulsa World
Dr. William Yarborough and medical student Peter Fast confer about a patient at the OU-Tulsa Schusterman Clinic, which has a six-months-or-longer waiting list for new patients who work and live with chronic pain, and lack health insurance. MICHAEL WYKE/Tulsa World