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Variety Care, NorthCare enter into partnership to provide 'whole-person care' for Oklahomans

The NorthCare building in Oklahoma City. Variety Care already offers some services from the facility.
The NorthCare building in Oklahoma City. Variety Care already offers some services from the facility.

Variety Care is Oklahoma’s largest community health center, and NorthCare is a behavioral health services provider. Their formal affiliation agreement will bring members of the NorthCare Board of Directors onto the Variety Care Board of Directors, which will now oversee both organizations.

This will allow them to maintain Variety Care’s requirements as a Federally Qualified Health Center and NorthCare’s requirements as a Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinic.

Variety Care CEO Lou Carmichael will serve as the alignment’s president and CEO, and NorthCare CEO Randy Tate will become the alignment’s director of strategic integration projects. Variety Care’s Director of Integrated Health Services Sally Kerr will serve as the executive director of NorthCare.

Tate said the partnership has been years in the making, starting in 2008 when NorthCare’s adult services would bring in an advanced practitioner from Variety Care once a week to provide primary care services to their patients. Tate said there wasn’t as much of a focus on holistic care then.

“We were very afraid that we were spending a lot of energy helping people with their mental health and addiction issues, and then watching them die of other chronic health issues,” Tate said. “When we saw this opportunity to connect with Variety Care and actually embed into our treatment centers, we saw an immediate improvement in health, and we saw issues that were arising with our consumers being caught early.”

From then on, Tate said they wanted to strengthen their relationship with Variety Care. Variety Care at NorthCare in Oklahoma City offers nine exam rooms, a nurse’s station and doctors’ offices, allowing a primary care staff to support NorthCare’s behavioral health consumers.

Tate and Carmichael said this formal agreement will help both entities accomplish more together.

“It's a natural progression of collaboration, and then at some point, you think, ‘Gosh, we could really do this easier and better together, and let's just put it together,’” Carmichael said.

Tate said having this relationship with Variety Care will help people in mental health crises have their primary care services addressed earlier, and people seeking primary care can have their mental health needs addressed sooner.

He used a project from the Oklahoma City public improvement program MAPS 4 as an example of where collaboration can happen.

NorthCare is the operating partner for a new restoration center, which will include various elements of a crisis center plus additional ones like substance abuse counseling and wrap-around case management. He said when first responders come into contact with people in crisis, they can bring them to the center, provide background into the situation, and the center’s staff can tend to a person’s mental health needs and provide medical screenings.

Carmichael said the partnership will also allow both organizations to address workforce challenges.

“Workforce is really a piece of what this alignment can really do, and that is to really focus our professional resources toward the places where more care is actually needed. … We do not have enough mental health or primary care providers in our state. There is not enough to go around,” Carmichael said. “So what you must do then, is you've got to have a rational way to get people what they need.”

The partnership comes at an apt time for both organizations as the state moves to managed Medicaid, or SoonerSelect — meaning over 600,000 Oklahomans are now seeing their care coordinated by private insurance companies.

Proponents say the goal of the transition from the Oklahoma Health Care Authority-led, fee-for-service SoonerCare is to encourage preventative care, offering monetary incentives to Oklahomans for attending things like well-child and primary care visits.

“I think the move at the national level toward value-based payment and value-based care, that obviously working together on difficult health challenges makes this a real natural partnership, a collaboration, and I think a model for where things should go,” Carmichael said.

Carmichael said this partnership will help both entities provide “whole-person care”, leading to a healthier Oklahoma.

“A healthier population is more vital and able to live a productive life. Work, school, family, all the things get a little better — that improves the outcome,” Carmichael said. “And then healthier people are frankly easier and cheaper to take care of, so then we lower costs because the population itself is healthier. So it all works together toward really a vital, happy, better life.”

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Jillian Taylor has been StateImpact Oklahoma's health reporter since August 2023.
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