Loudoun County, VA, was one of the fastest growing counties in the United States during the recent housing boom and attracted scores of construction workers, many of them immigrants. The Loudoun Community Health Center opened in the middle of this growth frenzy as a full-service clinic serving low-income patients with a small staff in a small space donated by the local hospital. But the clinic saw a surge in demand for health care services as Loudoun County’s boom went bust and residents lost their health insurance.
Loudon Community Health Center is one example of the more than 8,000 community health centers around the country. The first centers were set up 45 years ago with a specific mandate to serve high-needs communities by providing comprehensive health care services to the most underserved residents, regardless of their ability to pay. A community board comprised of at least 51 percent patients governs each of these centers. And we recognize their work during National Health Center Week every year in the second week of August.
These centers serve approximately 20 million patients, including 900,000 migrant and seasonal farm workers and 1 million homeless persons. New research shows that community health centers not only provide needed care to their communities, but they are also becoming important generators of economic activity in the communities they serve.
The federal government funded community health centers with $2.2 billion in fiscal year 2010, and the recently passed health care overhaul bill, the Affordable Care Act, will provide them with an additional $9.5 billion beyond this funding over the next five years. These combined funds will generate a striking $53.7 billion in economic activity for some of the country’s most underserved communities and sustain more than 450,000 jobs in 2015 alone according to a new report from the Center for American Progress.
Thirty-two million more Americans will have health insurance thanks to the ACA, and about half of them will receive that coverage through Medicaid. Community health centers have a good track record of being able to ramp up services quickly after receiving additional funding through the 2009 Recovery Act and are in a good position to help meet this increased need again. Lawmakers anticipated this increased demand and allocated $1.5 billion for new construction through the ACA in addition to the $9.5 billion in operating costs. This funding could allow community health centers to double the amount of patients they serve annually by 2015.
The economic benefits from these centers could be extensive since law requires that community health centers be located in high-poverty areas. Their expansion will create employment and training opportunities, which will create higher demand for goods and services from local businesses, which will then hire additional employees to meet this demand. And the construction of additional centers will create jobs outside health care.
Community health centers serve areas with a large proportion of low-income families and minorities. Two-thirds of their patients are minorities—35 percent are Hispanic and 21 percent are African American, compared to 36 percent who are white. And a staggering 70 percent of the patients in these health centers are below the poverty level. The centers help reduce emergency room visits and expensive hospital care by focusing on primary care and providing supportive services like nutrition education, translation, and transportation.
Loudoun County is one of the most affluent counties in the United States, yet its health center has a 600-person waitlist and has already seen more than 6,000 patients since it opened its doors three years ago. Its staff grew from five to 30 in that period. The economic downturn that struck Loudoun County also hit countless of communities across the country. The expansion of community health centers will allow these communities to remain healthy, but it could also allow them to emerge from the recession.
Ellen-Marie Whelan is Associate Director of Health Policy and Senior Health Policy Analyst and Raúl Arce-Contreras is a Press Assistant at the Center for American Progress.