by Zack Stoycoff, VP of Government Relations, Tulsa Regional Chamber

The Tulsa Regional Chamber hosted a health care forum Monday that delved into the multi-directional impact of homelessness and regional health systems. Panelists discussed the financial burden of indigent care, as well as the role limited health-care access can play in the lives of people experiencing homelessness or those vulnerable to homelessness. The presentation also highlighted progress on homeless outreach due to system-wide agency collaboration in the region, opportunities to increase financial efficiencies, and creating solutions to provide better services and outcomes for those living with mental illness.

Jeff Jaynes, executive director of Restore Hope and past chair of Built for Zero Tulsa, a campaign aimed at ending chronic and veteran homelessness in the region, kicked off the forum by outlining the financial benefits of permanent supportive housing, over homelessness. People without homes often cause a higher financial burden on cities and social systems when they’re living outside due to high usage of police, ambulance, ER and jail services, among other reasons. Tulsa is using an evidence-based housing-first method to help individuals move from the streets and into stability; this means individuals are accepted into a house first and then immediately provided with wraparound services such as mental health and addiction treatments, and job training.

“Chronically homeless means a person has been homeless on-and-off for more than a year and has a disabling condition that could be a physical ailment or a mental health issue such as depression or anxiety,” said Jaynes. “Housing-first means these individuals have a chance to receive services to regularly improve or maintain their conditions instead of depending on ERs for care.”

Mark Davis, chief program officer for the Mental Health Association Oklahoma, shared a specific example of the financial implications and overburden of health systems with an MHAO client who called EMSA multiple times weekly. Davis noted a mental illness drove the individual to call medics because they made him feel safe. When this overuse of the system was identified, MHAO partnered with first responders and other service-providers to create a new solution for this individual that was both more effective and less costly to taxpayers.

“I can only imagine how much money is saved every time we prevent him from calling 911,” said Davis. “That saves two police units, a firetruck with probably four people on board, and EMSA paramedics being on-scene.”

Steve Williamson, president and CEO of EMSA, said the five people in Tulsa who call EMSA most frequently called 550 times last year, an average of nine times per person per month, which resulted in $300,000 in write-offs. Williamson noted that reporting is anonymous due to privacy laws but based on pickup locations, it’s easy to see a trend that many of the high-frequency callers are either homeless or utilizing homeless services.

Dr. Laura Dempsey, vice president of community advancement at Morton Comprehensive Health Services, a Federally Qualified Health Center that serves a large portion of Tulsa’s low- and no-income population, shared other ways agencies reduce the financial burden of health costs. Like EMSA, Morton Comprehensive carries a financial burden due to serving the uninsured, however free and low-cost preventative health services provide long-term and system-wide cost-savings by helping patients avoid preventable emergency room visits, whether through medical intervention, health education or simply providing access to a health care option.

Mental health care access is a problem in Oklahoma; 22.4 percent of Oklahomans have a mental illness and that leads to higher incarceration rates, substance abuse, homelessness and more. Oklahoma ranks 45th in the nation for access to mental health care, with only one psychiatrist for every 14,615 people. To put that into perspective, the nationwide average is 224 percent higher, with one psychiatrist for every 6,530 people.

To address critical changes needed to the Tulsa region’s mental health care delivery system, The University of Tulsa Institute for Health Care Delivery Sciences partnered with Washington D.C.-based Urban Institute to conduct a comprehensive study and provide a 10-year plan for improvement.

Dr. Richard Wansley with Mental Health Association Oklahoma and a steering committee member for the plan, shared preliminary results of the study that shows a 26-year gap in the life expectancy between individuals with serious mental illness versus the general population in Tulsa.

With a 10-year plan in place, Tulsa can move forward to provide a well-functioning, prevention-oriented, recovery-centered, evidence-based and cost-effective continuum of mental health care for people affected by mental illness, Wansley said. To do so, it will take cross-sector alignment, policy changes and increasing funding for behavioral health services.

“Addressing chronic homelessness is a key step in creating a more vibrant economy, and the solutions are often one-in-the-same,” said Zack Stoycoff, vice president of government affairs at the Chamber. “We must broaden access to mental health services, reform our criminal justice system, and support workforce development and education. These improvements will help all Tulsans, including those who are currently or at high risk of being homeless.


  • Built for Zero is a nationwide initiative to end veteran and chronic homelessness; 75 communities are participating including Tulsa. In 2015, AWH4T housed more than 340 vulnerable Tulsans and increased efficiencies to ensure Tulsa becomes a community where homelessness is rare, brief and non-recurring.
  • Mental Health Association Oklahoma is dedicated to promoting mental health, preventing mental disorders and achieving victory over mental illness through advocacy, education, research, service and housing.
  • Morton Comprehensive Health Services provides quality-focused, cost-effective and family-based health services with dignity and respect to all people without regard to their finances, culture or lifestyle and to provide the information and support to promote their participation in health care decisions.
  • Tulsa Regional Mental Health Plan: under the guidance of a steering committee of 17 Tulsa mental health care professionals, foundations and community leaders, and in association with Urban Institute and funded by the Anne and Henry Zarrow Foundation, the University of Tulsa Institute for Health Care Delivery Sciences is conducting an in-depth study of the Tulsa region’s mental health care delivery system and creating a 10-year plan for improvement.
  • EMSA is Oklahoma’s leading ambulance provider serving more than 1.1 million residents in central and northeastern Oklahoma.


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