The new health care reform law is forcing us to reevaluate how we deliver care to patients from low-income, high-poverty backgrounds. Luckily, there’s already a successful model for delivering care in these types of environments, and it can even revitalize the economies of depressed communities.
Health centers deliver a comprehensive range of primary health care to areas that the federal government designates as “medically underserved communities.” They provide care to all people who have no health insurance, regardless of their ability to pay. They’ve been around for 45 years and they “can save billions for tax payers,” according to Daniel R. Hawkins, Jr., Senior Vice President for Public Policy and Research at the National Association of Community Health Centers.
Hawkins appeared alongside a panel of health center administrators and health care experts at the Center for American Progress yesterday to discuss how health centers can help implement health care reform and reignite local economies. Ellen-Marie Whelan, Associate Director of Health Policy at the Center for American Progress, has experience working at a health center in West Philadelphia. She pointed out the economic benefits of health centers, echoing her recently released report on the importance of these health centers, saying “These health centers are economic engines in their communities.”
“[Health centers] are an anchor in communities that have too little in the way of economic development,” said Hawkins, citing how health centers frequently keep pharmacies, dental and medical supply companies, and other small businesses in their communities afloat. “Being grounded in the community is critical,” said Hawkins.
Health centers are also economically desirable because they rein in the astronomic tax costs of hospital-based care. “We’re keeping people out of the emergency room and keeping them from being hospitalized unnecessarily,” said Whelan on how health centers save money in their communities.
Health centers have been expanding rapidly as an increasing number of people have had to forgo health insurance over the last few decades. The number of health centers doubled under President George W. Bush’s tenure. And Hawkins is “absolutely confident that health centers will succeed” thanks to the recent passage of the Affordable Care Act.
“The demand was so high that we were struggling to make ends meet,” said Stephanie Kenyon, chief operating officer at the Loudoun Community Health Center in Leesburg, Virginia. All that will change when federal funding from the Affordable Care Act kicks in and they begin to grow. Yet their services are still limited, and they are looking to expand in the wake of ACA’s passage. “We only have 8 exam rooms,” said Kenyon, who is planning on more than doubling this number with coming federal funding.
Rebecca Keen-Fan Sze, director of Women’s Health at the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center in New York City, hopes to use the funding to meet the needs of patients who have difficulty securing appointments during the workweek. “Hopefully we will be able to expand our services on the weekend,” said Sze. The patients themselves suggest these types of changes through their involvement on the community boards that govern health centers. Health care practitioners and patients work side-by-side on these boards to determine the needs of the specific community being served. “We assess what the community needs based on this board,” said Sze. In this way, health centers are a truly collaborative model for health care delivery.
Health centers were “founded to be not only agents of care, but also agents of change,” and have “had an impact on the rest of the system,” according to Hawkins. The way they’ve reorganized the efficiency and delivery of care has had huge a huge affect on the way hospitals and other health care sites work. They contribute to the economic livelihood of the areas they serve rather than sapping money from communities. As the United States forges into the health care system of the 21st century, it should look to health centers as guiding models.
Daniel R. Hawkins, Jr., Senior Vice President for Public Policy and Research, National Association of Community Health Centers
Rebecca Keen-Fan Sze, FNP, MSN, MPA, Director of Women’s Health at the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center, New York, NY
Stephanie Kenyon, Chief Operating Officer at the Loudoun Community Health Center, Leesburg, VA
Ellen-Marie Whelan, NP, PhD, Associate Director of Health Policy, Center for American Progress
Vanessa Cárdenas, Director, Progress 2050