Column: Community health centers work

Loretta V. Bush

Despite the controversy surrounding our nation’s health care debate, there’s one issue everyone can agree on: the importance of community health centers. For over 50 years, the Health Centers Program has earned bipartisan support by proving that it is possible to have a federal program that works and also delivers a return on public investment.

Health centers are unique to the communities they serve and are located in areas where significant financial, geographic, language, and cultural barriers to care exist. In Michigan, 45 community health centers serve more than 650,000 people, many of whom otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford or access care. Their patients include veterans, migrant and seasonal agricultural workers, homeless individuals, and children.

Michigan’s health centers are part of a national network that provides primary care to more than 25 million Americans. Their integrated approach to medical, behavioral, and oral health has saved countless lives, reduced and prevented chronic disease in the most challenging patient populations, and provided affordable options for care — regardless of insurance status. Health centers have even played a critical role in treating and responding to the opioid epidemic, which is destroying the lives of more and more Michiganders every year.

It’s not just about saving lives, either. Health centers also save taxpayer dollars. That’s largely because health centers work efficiently with Medicaid and offer a whole-person approach to care. In fact, health centers are often the most reliable places Medicaid beneficiaries can go for care. When Medicaid beneficiaries seek care from a health center, the state saves an average of $2,371 (or 24 percent) in total spending per Medicaid patient as compared to other providers, according to a 2016 study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

But the future of this innovative care is in jeopardy. At the end of September, health centers will lose 70 percent of their federal funding if Congress doesn’t renew the Health Centers Fund. In Michigan, that means a loss of $64 million, cutting more than 63,000 patients off from care and forcing health centers to eliminate jobs, enabling services, and educational programs. But Congress can’t afford to turn its back on the health care solution that’s working.

As part of National Health Center Week, Aug. 13-19, elected officials nationwide will visit their local health centers. They’ll celebrate and learn about the community-based health program that’s worked for decades by providing social services, reducing unnecessary visits to the emergency department, lowering costs, and putting healthier residents back to work. Our leaders’ consistent support shows that it’s entirely possible for people to agree on a program vital to our communities’ and the nation’s public health. Good health begins with primary and preventive care. Access to community health centers is a prescription for the good health of our nation.

Loretta V. Bush is CEO of Michigan Primary Care Association.