Health Reform in Action: A Look at Investments in Community Health Centers

ObamaCareSavesLivesAmidst the zigzag of the stock market and the picking of the members of the Congressional supercommittee to reduce the deficit, I did not want us to miss something that is equally critical: this week is National Health Center Week. On Tuesday, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced a $28.8 million grant under health reform to establish new community health center access points that will serve an additional 286,000 patients in 67 communities. These grants are not to build new CHC's but to build new access points of existing community centers that already serve underprivileged communities. A full list of awardees is available here.

The grants will eventually be expanded to 350 new centers and $250 million. The National Association of Community Health Centers pointed out in their press release about these grants that CHCs do not simply provide access to quality health care, but also to jobs for hard-hit communities:
"We deeply appreciate today’s announcement by HHS, which comes as we celebrate National Health Center Week,” said Tom Van Coverden, President and CEO of the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC)... [T]his announcement does mean that we can continue to bring quality, cost-saving primary care services to more communities that are ready and waiting to serve patients... Additionally, health centers bring valuable jobs to hard-hit communities across the country. Investing in health centers is a good prescription for both our nation’s health and the economy.”
The NACHC also points out the incredibly good investment that community health centers are both for health care and economically:

  • Health centers bring a unique, comprehensive approach that has delivered proven cost-savings, improved patient health and reduced visits to hospital emergency rooms for over 45 years;
     
  • Today, health centers generate $24 billion in annual savings to the health care system, and every dollar invested in health centers generates $11.50 in potential savings; and,
     
  • Health centers employ 190,000 Americans and generate $20 billion in annual economic activity for poor rural and urban communities.
President Obama issued a proclamation for National Health Center Week, highlighting the investments his administration has made in health centers, both in the Recovery Act and in health reform. Here are a few other highlights of what is happening in community health care thanks to health reform:

  • $727 million in CHC grants for centers across the country to expand services to 745,000 additional underserved patients to 143 locations across the country. October 2010.
     
  • Secretary Sebelius made $335 million available for community health centers to expand services to provide more comprehensive care in mental health, behavioral health, pharmacy, vision and enabling services (i.e. transportation, financial counseling, language, education, case management services that help patients access care and make sense of the system). October 2010.
     
  • A $95 million investment in 278 school based health centers, expanding their current capacity of about 800,000 by over 50%, or an additional 440,000. July 2011.
In addition to the $11 billion that is provided in the Affordable Care Act ($1.5 billion for major construction and renovation projects at existing centers and $9.5 billion for expansion and medical services), the Recovery Act made another $2 billion investment in health centers.

As I had pointed out on multiple occasions during the health reform debate, the total capacity of community health centers, when health reform is fully implemented, will for the first time ever exceed the total number of uninsured. That has real implications. This means even those who cannot obtain insurance even with health reform will still be able to get health care - all of them. In fact, if you factor this in, it's the community health centers that will fulfill the age old progressive mission of health care for all. Additionally, the extra capacity will mean that CHC's will be able to see patients who have the ability to pay and have insurance, thereby setting up direct competition with the for-profit provider industry.

I simply cannot emphasize the importance of the health centers enough. Presidents after presidents and Congresses after Congresses have talked about providing access to quality health care for everyone. Health reform, with CHCs an integral and essential part, might actually finally get us close to that. This is no small feat.

Finally, let us all remember something Speaker Pelosi said on the passage of health reform: we could not have been here without the leadership of President Obama. We could not be expanding access to community health centers and building new centers and expanding the range of services they offer without the leadership of President Obama. When everyone wanted to give up - and some wanted to tear down - President Obama insisted that we get it done. Not for political expediency but for the common good. Not for point-scoring but for the lives that community health centers save, for the people who are priced out of the market and for the caring principle that in America, health care is a right.