Federally Qualified Health Centers, or community health centers as they are often known, have played a major role in curbing the spread of COVID-19. They cater to underserved communities and individuals, including those without health insurance. For many low-income Americans, these health facilities have been a blessing over the last few months.
Many people and their families would have likely gone without medical care if these centers did not exist today. Without access to testing, they may have spread the virus to their family members or co-workers without their knowledge.
So, what are community health centers and why are they considered the backbone of the healthcare industry?
Community Health Centers: An Origin Story
CHCs were born out of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. At the time, Dr. Jack Geiger was studying health disparities in South Africa. Black patients were often excluded from the country’s medical system, so Dr. Geiger and his colleagues started looking for alternative ways of providing care to these communities. These experiences ultimately shaped his understanding of the healthcare industry for years to come.
He soon returned to the U.S. to find the same health disparities among African Americans in the rural South, many of whom were outright turned away from local hospitals and doctors’ offices. In collaboration with the newly created Office of Economic Opportunity, which was created to fight the “War on Poverty,” Dr. Geiger showed how poor housing, lack of access to care, and other economic factors can be social determinants of poor health, leading to a lifetime of poverty and disease.
To address these issues, they created two community health centers, one in Mississippi and one in Boston. In addition to providing comprehensive primary care, these centers changed the surrounding communities to better the health of local citizens. The Mississippi CHC helped residents grow tons of vegetables at a community garden, which gave them the tools they needed to lead a healthy lifestyle.
How They Are Fighting Back Against COVID-19
Fifty-five years later, that legacy continues today. There are now 1,200 community health centers all over the country. Together, they serve nearly 30 million Americans, many of whom cannot afford to access care at a hospital or doctor’s office.
Across the U.S., they serve:
- 1 in 9 children
- 1 in 5 rural residents
- 1 in 3 of those living in poverty
They also tend to cater to other low-income groups, including agricultural workers, immigrants, veterans, and those living in public housing.
Most CHCs provide a range of services, including medical, dental, and behavioral healthcare. They do so regardless of the person’s ability to pay. Statistics show that around 25% of CHC patients are uninsured, and around half are covered by Medicaid, the main financier of these programs.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, these health clinics have become all the more vital. The New York Times estimates that millions of Americans have already lost their employer-sponsored health insurance due to the pandemic. This also means more people have less cash on hand to pay for medical services out of pocket.
As of today, CHCs have administered around 2.6 million COVID-19 tests, including walk-up and drive-thru testing. Communities of color make up almost half of all patients tested at CHCs. They are providing life-saving services to those that need them the most, including essential and front-line workers, low-income residents who cannot work from home, and chronically ill patients on Medicaid.
The Need for Funding
Despite the success of CHCs, the pandemic has depleted their funding in recent months. Over 1,000 sites across the country have temporarily closed at some point due to outbreaks among staff, lack of PPE, and the reduced funding. Fewer patients are coming into these facilities in person, which means less revenue. Some have had to suspend vision and dental health services for these reasons.
However, many of these patients do not have the option of driving to the next closest clinic. Not having insurance limits these individuals to CHCs and other low-cost clinics, which is why additional funding for these clinics is so vital to the health of the nation.
Experts are calling for a series of changes to sustain these programs for the foreseeable future. The Bipartisan Policy Center wants to reauthorize federal funding for the Community Health Center Fund at the current level of $5.6 billion annually.
Some are calling for technology updates to these centers, so existing providers can make better use of their time, see patients remotely, and improve health outcomes.
Others are focusing on Medicaid, the backbone of CHCs. They’d like to see increased reimbursement rates for providers that see Medicaid patients, so they can make more money for their time. This would also allow them to see more patients for free.
In the months ahead, CHCs will be at the forefront of the pandemic in their respective communities. They will be the ones educating, testing, and treating patients for the virus. They will also be responsible for distributing a coronavirus vaccine to these communities.
Use the CDC website to locate and collaborate with CHCs in your community. The agency also provides tips for working with these centers, such as sharing data, identifying gaps in service delivery, and referring uninsured patients to free or low-cost clinics. Learn how you can support community health centers as they continue fighting for underserved patients.