Submitted by Reba Rice, CEO
National Health Center Week 2020 will be celebrated from August 9 to August 15. Elected officials will join communities across the country—in person and virtually—in elevating the work Community Health Centers have done while fighting on the front lines of COVID-19 to keep our communities healthy and safe. Their visits and messages will demonstrate that it is possible to move beyond the partisan divide over health care to support and agree on a program vital to our communities.
Health Centers provide preventive and primary care services to almost 30 million people and have continued to do so while facing a global pandemic. Community Health Centers provide care to people who disproportionately suffer from chronic disease and lack access to affordable, quality care. While our approach is community-based and local, collectively we are the backbone of the nation’s primary care system. Community Health Centers lower health care costs to the tune of 24 billion dollars a year, reduce rates chronic diseases, and stimulate local economies.
At NorthLakes Community Clinic we provide a broad array of services, such as dental, medical, behavioral health (including recovery and psychiatry), occupational and speech therapy, chiropractic and optometry. Community Health Centers are not just healers, we are innovators who look beyond clinical charts to address the many factors that may cause poor health, such as poverty, homelessness, lack of nutrition, and unemployment. We are a critical piece of the health care systems and collaborate with many partners: local and state governments, social, health care and business organizations and schools to improve health outcome for people who are vulnerable. We have pivoted to serve our communities through tele-health; drive through COVID-19 testing, pharmacy and lab services; and ensure our patients can access basic necessities like food, transportation and connections to other community resources.
While COVID-19 continues to exacerbate social and health inequities across the country, Community Health Centers have stretched themselves to reconfigure services for those in need. As unemployment rates rise and more people lose their employee-sponsored health insurance, Community Health Centers must remain open to provide care for all, regardless of insurance status. Our Community Health Workers and Certified Application Counselors are available to help people get access to insurance and many other resources.
The mission of Community Health Centers remains crucial today because access to basic care remains a challenge in much of the United States. In NorthLakes’ extremely rural service area—stretching 20,000 square miles across the top of the state—residents often travel many miles to get care, despite the fact that we endeavor to bring care options as close as possible to as many people as we can.
Although Community Health Centers are, and have been for over 50 years, a cornerstone in the health care system to serve rural, urban and other underserved communities, our federal funding is never stable. NorthLakes federal grant, which enables us to provide care on a sliding fee scale for income-eligible patients, is only a little over 10% of our total budget. In truth, it’s a very small budget item! But it is nonetheless critical for our sustainability. We operate on an extremely tight margin. We do not see this grant as an entitlement. It is an investment. We earn this every year by providing excellent value to our patients, community partners and the taxpayers of our region. We create jobs, offer preventive services and provide non-reimbursable services that are proven to improve health and keep people out of emergency rooms.
Congress must act immediately for CHCs to continue to serve as health care homes. Emergency and long-term, stable funding for Community Health Centers will ensure we can keep our doors open and close the growing access gap for our communities. Without the action of Congress, Community Health Center funding will expire on November 30, 2020. We are grateful to Senators Baldwin and Johnson and Representatives Tiffany and Gallagher for their support of our work in their districts.
We are also grateful to our communities for your continued confidence in our mission and our services. We will be there when you need us.
Reba Rice is NorthLakes CEO.