Community Health Centers Ready to Play Key Role in Reformed U.S. Health Care System

by Kim E. Sibilsky, Executive Director, Michigan Primary Care Association

As the health care reform debate heads into the home stretch, with the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House each merging committee-passed bills into final legislation, Community Health Centers stand ready to serve as the health care home of choice for millions of U.S. residents seeking quality, comprehensive, accessible health care they can afford. 

The nationwide network of 1,200 Community Health Centers located in communities from coast-to-coast and border to border have a track record of success in reducing health disparities and reducing cost.  Their doors are open to the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the healthy and the sick, the insured and the uninsured, and their fees are based on patients’ income.

One of the primary goals of reforming the U.S. health care system is to ensure that more people in America have health insurance.  Those who lack health insurance often go without preventive and primary care they need to stay healthy.  Others also go without ongoing care of chronic conditions like diabetes, asthma, and heart disease.  No one should have to suffer without the health care and prescriptions they need to live quality, productive lives.

However, even if everyone in America woke up with a health insurance card tomorrow, they’d still need a place to go to for care – a health care home.

Thanks in large part to the bi-partisan efforts of Michigan’s U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Community Health Centers are being recognized as that place. Thirty-two Community Health Centers in Michigan are already serving as the health care home for over half a million of the state’s residents – and the numbers are likely to continue to grow. 

Community Health Centers address all the needs of a patient, including primary, preventive, oral, pharmaceutical, and mental health/substance abuse services.  They even provide translation, transportation, and eligibility assistance—all in a culturally sensitive way—to remove common barriers to accessing health care.  Even if insured, many patients remain isolated from health care due to where they live, the language they speak, and their complex health care needs. Through their comprehensive nature, Community Health Centers are committed to increasing the quality and years of healthy lives for all U.S. residents.

A recent study by George Washington University showed that if Community Health Centers were expanded nationwide to accommodate an additional 20 million patients, the health care system would save $212 billion over the next decade.  And the savings isn’t realized at just the federal level.  A Michigan-specific study found that Michigan Community Health Centers saved the State of Michigan over $42 million in 2007. The prescription is simple: treat people before they get sick and require care at a hospital.

So a key component of heath care reform should be to ensure that there are enough Community Health Centers for the growing number of people who need them.  Senator Stabenow has been a champion of Community Health Centers as the debate has raged and is committed to making sure that if there is reform, Health Centers will play a key role.

Michigan Community Health Centers are on the front lines every day, providing care for more jobless and uninsured individuals as the recession continues.  In Michigan, the number of uninsured tops 1 million, and over 1.5 million residents lack a health care home.  Signs are clear that lack of access to care is not just a problem for low-income individuals—it’s reaching the doorsteps of the middle-class.  The good news is that they ALL can receive quality health care at a Community Health Center.

Thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus package), Community Health Centers received a boost of one-time funding earlier this year, enabling them to provide care to more patients who are unemployed, uninsured, or underinsured in today’s economic crisis.  While this funding came at a critical time, it wasn’t the cure.  The cure is health care reform done right.  People must be free to choose a Community Health Center as their health care home, and Community Health Centers must be adequately reimbursed and provided long-term financing and other tools needed to ensure that every underserved community, rural or urban, has a Community Health Center to meet the health care needs of its residents.

I am thankful that Senator Stabenow is leading the charge on these issues, and I am hopeful that the health care system taking shape today will provide more Community Health Centers for tomorrow’s generation.

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