National Health Center Week Spotlights Increasingly Vital Role of ‘Hospital Shock Absorbers’
Friday at 9:50 pm
BY SANDRA GUY
The growing COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting community health centers’ critical, though little-known, role in serving those most at risk and the growing numbers of the unemployed and uninsured.
The country’s nearly 1,400 community health centers provide services for 28 million people each year at more than 13,000 sites. They’re often the only point of care for the poorest and most medically vulnerable, including Black and Brown communities whose lack of access to quality healthcare, fresh foods and other systemic disadvantages have increased their coronavirus risks.
The community health centers act as “the shock absorbers for hospitals,” as Steve Carey, chief strategy officer for the National Association of Community Health Centers, put it — not only by keeping uninsured patients out of the emergency room but also as a first line of defense against COVID-19 and by serving COVID-19 patients with milder or moderate symptoms.
Just as National Health Center Week’s recognition nears — it’s Aug. 9-15 — the demands on the centers’ services look to become overwhelming, since an estimated 5.4 million Americans have lost their healthcare insurance since the pandemic lockdowns started four months ago due to job losses. That’s more people who’ve become uninsured ever in a single year, surpassing the 2008-2009 recession, according to a study by the nonpartisan consumer advocacy group Families USA.
Another study found that more than 80 percent of uninsured children and adults younger than 65 live in working families, and that recent immigrants accounted for a relatively small proportion of the uninsured (fewer than one in five).
The patients have a voice in the way the health centers are run: By statute, patients must make up more than 50% of each community health center board.
Patients and community members also have a voice in electing the U.S. Congressmen who vote on the health centers’ budget. The U.S. Senate is now poised to act on the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which, in the U.S. House version, would provide $7.6 billion in emergency funding to help the overwhelmed community health centers.
But some lawmakers say more far-reaching efforts are needed. For example, one proposal calls for $77 billion in funding for community health centers over five years so the centers can set up telehealth services and offer critical job-training programs such as the National Health Service Corps and the Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education program. Senators Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. and Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., are sponsoring that funding proposal.
Hand-in-hand with greater funding is the idea of universal healthcare coverage. Supporters of Medicare for All and other guaranteed healthcare proposals see community health centers as a key piece of such a system. Another expansion would enable the centers to hire hundreds of thousands of unemployed Americans who’ve lost their jobs and train them to be a corps of COVID-19 contract tracers. The long-term goal would be for many of those workers to progress into chronic disease management positions.
To keep up with the latest news about the health centers’ evolving role, see