Opinion: Fund community health centers to solve health care crisis

Dennis Litos
Community health centers provide cutting-edge primary and preventive care to Americans for more than 50 years, Litos writes.

What if we could help more people — especially the most vulnerable — access quality, affordable care that helps them live their best lives, saves money and provides a return on taxpayer dollar?

With the Affordable Care Act under attack and “Medicare for All” on many people’s lips, it’s clear that the United States is ready for a national health care solution that works.

What may surprise you is that one of the solutions is already here: Community health centers have been providing cutting-edge primary and preventive care services to the most vulnerable people in America for more than 50 years. In fact, 28 million people, including more than 700,000 in Michigan, rely on a community health center for care.  

Health centers are unique because they’re patient-powered — tailored to meet the needs of the communities they serve. They’re governed by patient-majority boards. They work with key community partners to provide crucial wraparound services, such as housing and food assistance, to help reduce barriers to care and address the root challenges that can make people unhealthy. Even better, health centers are often one-stop shops for care. Where else can you go to your dentist, behavioral health provider, doctor and more, often all under one roof?

By providing next-level chronic disease management and integrated, whole-person care, community health centers don’t just get and keep people healthy, they heal the economy, too.

When more people can afford and access quality care, it helps them be healthy enough to find work and stay working. They take fewer sick days, and they have the ability to address conditions before they become major, expensive, life-threatening problems. Health centers’ local, community based approach to providing care lowers health care costs by $24 billion every year. As small businesses, health centers generate a big economic impact — more than $1.3 billion in total economic activity and nearly 11,000 jobs in Michigan alone.

Community health centers are also the perfect example of a successful public-private partnership, where local and federal investments join forces to deliver improved health outcomes and cost savings. However, that federal investment is under fire. On Sept. 30, funding that accounts for 70% of the federal investment in community health centers will expire, making it hard for health centers across the country — and here in Michigan — to meet the growing needs of their patients and plan for the future.

There’s hope, though. Several bills, including H.R. 2328, have been introduced in Congress to provide stable, long-term funding for health centers and additional programs that help build the primary care workforce we need for the future. This National Health Center Week, as we celebrate how health centers have shaped the past, present and future of health care in Michigan, we’re calling on Michigan’s congressional delegation to formalize their support and join in the effort to pass this legislation.

Let’s prove that it’s not only possible to move beyond the partisan divide over health care, but also to agree on a program that’s vital to our people and economy.

Dennis Litos is the Michigan Primary Care Association’s interim CEO.