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Faith-Based Providers and the Affordable Care Act

Medical care

SOURCE: AP/M. Spencer Green

Medical resident Stephanie Place examines Maria Cazho at the Erie Family Health Center in Chicago, Illinois, March 28, 2013.

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Conservatives often present a false opposition between government and charity. They believe that charitable and faith-based organizations are better suited to provide health and other social services than the government. But the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, reveals a far different reality, one that proves Americans are best served when there are strong community-government partnerships that ensure all Americans have access to smart, effective, and community-specific programs and services.

Just as government needs local community partners, many faith-based organizations need government support—support that various provisions of the Affordable Care Act make possible. More so than ever, faith-based organizations, churches, and charities that are providing important work on the ground cannot meet the needs of their communities without additional assistance and support. Rev. Gary Gunderson, vice president for faith and health ministries at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, says that the ACA is “a huge landmark” for faith-based health care. “This is a tremendous opportunity for the faith community to help make it work,” he said.

Below are five ways that faith-based community health providers and the government are working together to expand access to health care through the ACA.

Enabling community health centers to expand their services to more people in need of comprehensive health care

Community health centers provide essential preventive services and primary care to millions of Americans, regardless of their ability to pay. As more and more Americans use community health centers as their primary care home, however, clinics across the country are stretched beyond capacity to meet their needs. Community health centers, which have bipartisan political support, will continue to play an important role in American health care, even as more people gain insurance through the ACA. To ensure these centers can meet these needs, the ACA includes key provisions to strengthen their capacities. In addition to expanding access to care, the construction and renovation of health care centers under the ACA create jobs in local communities.

More than 800 community health centers have already received support to provide more-coordinated care to patients. One example is Christ Community Health Services, or CCHS, in Memphis, Tennessee, which was founded in 1995 by four medical students who wanted to bring the values of their Christian faith to their medical practice. Today, CCHS is the second-largest faith-based health center in the country, serving the uninsured, homeless, and others in need through six health centers, three dental clinics, three pharmacies, and a mobile health van. CCHS was able to expand its integrated health care through an ACA grant, renovating a clinic to add space for a dental clinic, physical therapy, and more administration offices.

Expanding support to rural communities and health care providers

Access to health care services can be limited in rural areas. The ACA includes several provisions to improve health care access and limit the strain on health care providers by investing in the health care workforce in rural areas, providing tax credits for rural small businesses, and more. The ACA also includes planning grants for faith-based and community groups to expand comprehensive primary and preventive services to those in areas who lack access to health care services. These providers are often more able than for-profit entities to provide rural Americans health services because of their access to volunteer labor, member donations, and charitable giving.

In rural southwest Indiana, Welborn Baptist Foundation received a Community Transformation Grant to help prevent chronic diseases such as heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes and promote tobacco-free living, active living and health and clinical preventive services. The foundation applies Christian principles in support of improved community health and well-being and works with both secular and faith-based organizations and churches to assist the community and reduce health care disparities.

Strengthening school-based health care

School-based health centers are a key component of the nation’s health care safety net. They enable children with acute and chronic illnesses to attend school, and they improve the overall health of students through health screenings and disease-prevention activities. The ACA has funded health centers to expand and improve these services, and faith-based providers across the country are already using these resources to provide care. The Jewish Renaissance Medical Center received a grant to expand primary and preventive care to children in schools in Newark and Perth Amboy, New Jersey. In Springdale, Arkansas, the Community Clinic at St. Francis House, founded by the Episcopal Church, is a “Federally Qualified Health Center” that has received two grants to expand or build two school-based health centers in its service area. The clinic also received ACA funds to expand its facilities to meet growing needs; in the last five years, the clinic has seen a 100 percent increase in its patient load. The clinic has added a wing, including 15 exam rooms, and brought on two additional family-practice providers.

Increasing access to preventive health care

A principal premise of the ACA is that by investing in preventive care, Americans will be healthier and health care will be less expensive. Through numerous provisions, such as ensuring that people can access a number of important health screenings and services at no cost, the ACA is expanding preventive care to all Americans. One way it is doing this is through assisting faith-based and community groups that have long provided preventive care to their communities. Churches, along with other neighborhood-based and voluntary organizations, have been essential to community-based prevention efforts, especially around nutrition and physical activity, diabetes prevention, injury control, and sexual and reproductive health. These organizations are important messengers for this work, helping generate community buy-in and access to prevention resources and activities.

St. Helena Hospital Clear Lake is one of the faith-based health providers the ACA has helped design and implement a community-level program to provide this preventive care. St. Helena is part of Adventist Health, a faith-based integrated health care delivery system that was founded on Seventh-day Adventist values.

Ensuring full implementation of the ACA

October 1 was the first day of a six-month campaign to enroll millions of Americans in affordable health plans. Faith leaders across the country have been partnering with community groups and the government to make sure all Americans know about the health care coverage options available to them.

As Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebeliusexplained, faith leaders are “trusted partners” because of their “unique ability to reach people, especially the most vulnerable, with the tools and information they need to get healthy, stay well, and thrive.”

Nearly  17,000 faith and community groups have attended the Department of Health and Human Services’s monthly webinars about the law. From California to Illinois to New Jersey, faith groups have joined secular groups in statewide educational campaigns, reaching Americans in their houses of worship and community centers. Enroll America, a national nonprofit group that works to inform the public about the ACA, is also reaching out to faith leaders, including a training session for African Methodist Episcopal Church leaders in Las Vegas.

Conclusion

Through these important government-community partnerships, Americans have better access to health care services, and faith-based groups are better able to do the work to which they are called—serving those in need. Contrary to Republican rhetoric, the ACA helps community health centers, rural areas, schools, and faith groups build a healthier America.

Eleni Towns is a Research Associate with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.

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