Donna Dyer
In addition to her duties running a community health center, Donna Dyer is a member of the Wetumka City Council. (NonDoc)

Donna Dyer does a little bit of everything in Wetumka, Oklahoma.

Beyond her full-time day job as CEO of East Central Oklahoma Family Health Center, Inc., she also serves as president of the Wetumka Chamber of Commerce. In early 2020, a series of events led to the resignations of three Wetumka City Council members and triggered a special election. Dyer followed in the footsteps of her late husband and won a seat on the council with more than 71 percent support.

Recently, Dyer answered a series of questions about her life, her hometown and ECO Family Health Center, a federally qualified health center with locations in Wetukma, Wewoka and Henryetta.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and style.

Where did you grow up, and how did you end up working in community health care?

I am from Wetumka and graduated from East Central University with a bachelor’s in arts with a concentration in counseling and a graduate degree in human resources administration. I began working at Twin Rivers Head Start in 1985 and earned my associate degree in child development and then an associate of science degree from Seminole Junior College. I was employed with Twin Rivers for 23 years in several positions. During my time with head start, I saw the tremendous need of finding affordable health care, dental health and behavioral health for low-income families. In rural areas, health services are not as readily available as in some of the larger areas, so transportation to the services has always been an issue.

In 2003, the local hospital was on the verge of closing, and some of the prominent members of the community came together to begin the process of writing grants to apply for the Health Resources & Services Administration 330 Health Center funding. This much-needed funding was to provide affordable health care to Wetumka and the surrounding communities. In 2006, I was asked to serve on the board of directors for East Central Oklahoma Family Health Center, Inc. In August 2008, on our third application, ECO Family Health Center received HRSA 330 funding. By this time, the hospital and the local clinic had both closed. I applied for the CEO position and began my employment in September 2008. I was the only employee for two months to begin renovation of the existing clinic. In November 2008, I hired a chief financial officer and an administrative assistant.  In January 2009, ECO Family Health Center opened with 10 employees at one site. In 2015, we received funding to open a new clinic in Henryetta.

My road to providing affordable health care to the communities we serve has been long in some ways and very short in others.  Thirteen years is not a long time to build what we have in a small rural area. I had to grow with the health center and learn as I went. My years with head start helped me learn about administration, policies and grant writing. Each chapter of my life has helped to build on the next chapter.

FQHCs are fairly complicated in terms of their requirements, but patients mostly just see them as clinics that offer medical, dental and mental health care and that accept private insurance, Medicaid, Medicare and cash. Tell us about ECO Family Health Center specifically.

East Central Oklahoma Family Health Center, Inc. has grown from the 10 employees in Wetumka in 2008 to 52 employees located in Wetumka, Henryetta and Wewoka.  ECO Family Health Center is a non-profit, federally qualified health center (FQHC) or community health center (CHC), which is overseen by a nine-member volunteer board with 100 percent of the board members being patients of the Health Center. This gives ECO Family Health Center a unique perspective where patients make decisions which affect the health center. Our philosophy is that we want to meet the needs of each community.

ECO Family Health Center offers medical, behavioral health, dental services along with 340B prescription drug coverage. ECO Family Health Center utilizes electronic health records and offers digital x-rays, public school sports physicals, virtual medication assistance therapy (VMAT), vaccines for children and vaccines for COVID-19 and influenza. Behavioral health offers tele-psychiatry, parent child interactive therapy (PCIT), hypnotherapy, child, adult and family therapy.

Not only do we accept private insurances, Medicare and Medicaid, but a patient can apply to see if they qualify for a sliding fee scale cash discount. If a patient is under or uninsured, the patient can receive health care at a discount. The 340B prescription drugs are available for patients of ECO Family Health Center, which offers a substantial discount for under-uninsured patients.

Being an FQHC, we receive a grant from HRSA, however we are not a federal contractor or a federal employee. We are responsible for completing reports on all grants and money we receive.

The federal CMS vaccine mandate applies to FQHCs, although the mandate is facing a court challenge. I’m sure you want your employees protected against COVID-19, but do you expect staffing levels to be affected if the mandate takes effect?

Yes, the CMS employee vaccine applies to ECO Family Health Center, however there is a preliminary injunction to stop the mandate from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. At this time, I do not see a huge impact to ECO Family Health Center if the injunction is removed and the mandate becomes active again, however this could become an issue as we move forward. There is always a challenge to find qualified employees to fill clinical, administrative and clerical staff. Finding doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, dentists, behavioral health staff and other clinical staff to come to a rural community is always a challenge. I want our staff, their families and our patients to remain healthy, but I also feel that health care facilities should not be mandated to require vaccines of our staff,  whether it is COVID or something else — or be denied payments for providing care to our Medicare and Medicaid patients.

You have a new mobile medical unit and are working to open a new clinic in Wewoka. Tell us about those two projects.

We received the mobile exam unit in July 2021 to use in the service area for exams, COVID and flu vaccines by using FY 2020 Expanding Capacity for Coronavirus Testing (ECT) supplemental funding. Since we have had staffing changes in the past few months, we haven’t had it out in the field as much as we wanted.  The completion of the mobile unit took almost one year to complete owing to shortages of parts and staff due to COVID. Within the next few months, mobile vaccine clinics will be scheduled and more uses will be explored to maximize its value.

The $2.8 million construction of the new health center in Wewoka has been in the works since 2015, when Wewoka was funded by a New Access Point grant. ECO Family Health Center has received a long-term, low-interest loan through Mabrey Bank to fund this new facility. We have been approved for HRSA’s loan guarantee program and will be receiving a 30-year, 80 percent government-backed loan along with a HRSA Health Center Infrastructure Support grant to construct the 8,400-square-foot health center.  This new health center will provide medical, behavioral health and pharmacy services to Wewoka, and dental services will be added as the funding becomes available. This will be the third health center constructed by ECO Family Health Center.

How have the first six months of Medicaid expansion in Oklahoma affected your clinic and the populations you serve?

East Central Oklahoma Family Health Center in Wetumka, Henryetta and Wewoka is located in small rural communities with an elderly and low-income population. Many of the patients of ECO Family Health Center are uninsured throughout the service area. Within the past few years, patients have lost their jobs and/or their insurance.

With Medicaid expansion, patients have been able to access health care without cost. Even though ECO Family Health Center tries to keep costs as affordable as possible, health care is not free. Because of the large uninsured population, the drain on health care services has been worrisome. By patients enrolling in Medicaid, ECO Family Health Center is able to offer more services and keep employees without reductions in workforce. We have seen many citizens sign-up for Medicaid along with other insurances during this year’s open enrollment. ECO employs a navigator to help with the enrollment process.

Your late husband was a member of the Wetumka City Council years ago. After the drama with James and Rebecca Jackson that caused some issues in your town, you ran for and won a seat on the council yourself. What has happened over the last year and a half, and what are you most proud of as a council member?

When my late husband, Dewayne, first decided to run for the Wetumka City Council in 2004, I remember we were standing in the yard after the City Council had put an ordnance in place that he didn’t like and he said, “I can either stand here and gripe or I can do something about it.”

I felt the same way after the drama with the Jacksons. I believed that with my experience, I had the expertise to help build Wetumka again. This is my city where I grew up, where my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents lived and died. I didn’t want anything like this to ever happen again. The city manager and the current City Council are still working to correct the damage made to the budget, the morale of the citizens, the employees and generally build trust again. We are trying to ensure that one or two people can never come in and practically destroy the city again. All ordinances are being reviewed and will be put online soon for anyone to research any ordnance that they want to research. We want to be transparent and available to the citizens of the community. Our job is to protect the resources of the city and to be fiscally responsible.

I grew up here, and I plan to stay here until I am finished with my life. I hope someone can say that I made a difference during my lifetime.

The big annual festival in Wetumka is Sucker Day. Can you tell us the origin of Sucker Day and what it means that your community turned an embarrassing situation into a town celebration?

Sucker Day is a unique celebration that allowed Wetumka to laugh at ourselves and make a bad situation into something fun.

To understand how Sucker Day came to be, I think you need to understand a little about Wetumka. Wetumka has a rich history, and just like every community has had challenges and successes. Wetumka began in a location five miles east of the current location. When the train track came through this area, the town fathers decided to move the town next to the track, and a train station was built. A passenger train used to make a stop in Wetumka, and it grew to a large city with two movie theaters, three car dealerships, three banks, a soap factory, icehouse, junior college and many other businesses, along with a detention camp during World War II. Wetumka is the home of three tribal towns and the Wes Watkins Technical School. The public school mascot is a Chieftain. Some of the reasons Wetumka grew smaller over the years is that when I-40 was built, it pulled State Highway 9 traffic to the north, and when the Indian Nation Turnpike was built, it pulled traffic to the east away from State Highway 75, which was the main highway to Texas. Buildings burned and businesses moved away or closed, which is typical with many small towns across Oklahoma.

So now here is the story of Sucker Day. In 1953, F. Bam Morrison arrived in Wetumka and convinced the town’s fathers and the store owners that he was bringing a circus to town and sold advanced tickets. The store owners purchased bails of hay, peanuts, hot dogs and everything needed for a circus and to feed the crowds that were expected. During the days leading up to the day the circus was scheduled to arrive, the townspeople anxiously waited and waited, but the circus did not show. F. Bam Morrison had left the night before and took all the money. So, the town’s fathers hastily met and decided that Wetumka had been suckered, but why not have a celebration and call it Sucker Day.  Over the years, Wetumka has decreased in size and the celebration has gotten smaller, and some years Sucker Day did not happen. But more than 70 years later, we are still celebrating Sucker Day. This just goes to show that you can always laugh at yourself and make something good out of a bad situation.

Wetumka is a small but resilient city. We have good people who live and work in this community. We have always welcomed new people into the community, so this is why it was so hard when the Jackson’s arrived and then tried to destroy and control Wetumka. The citizens of this community did not let the situation continue and worked to wrestle the control back before it completely destroyed us. It took tenacity and the guts of many citizens to stand up and say, “No, we are not letting it happen.” I think Wetumka is stronger than it was before, and the pride in the community is returning. I am proud to be a citizen of Wetumka.