Opinion: Fund community health centers to fight COVID-19

Felix Valbuena Jr.

In the wake of Gov. Whitmer’s announcements regarding multiple confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Michigan, people are understandably concerned about whether our state can handle the challenge. 

Michigan’s 45 community health centers operate at more than 330 sites in urban and rural locations throughout the state. We overwhelmingly care for people who are on Medicaid, uninsured or underinsured, and we know that we’re best positioned (geographically and otherwise) to educate and coordinate care for the most vulnerable.

Community Health and Social Services Center (CHASS Center) has prepared and is educating the community on what we need to know about coronavirus and what to do if we are sick. We are monitoring Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updates and have taken measures to protect our patients, visitors and team members.

But while we’re prepared, we’re worried. Health centers, like CHASS Center, are ready to provide the whole-person care and essential health services our patients rely on, but we’ll be doing it with a limited supply of protective equipment, a plethora of newly anxious patients and the threat of a fiscal cliff on the horizon.

Funding for health centers across the nation will expire  May 22 unless Congress acts. If that funding goes away, about 93,200 Michigan residents will lose access to care, Valbuena writes.

Right now, health centers across the nation are operating with temporary federal funding that will expire May 22 unless Congress acts. If that funding goes away, about 93,200 Michigan residents will lose access to care, and health center sites will close, which is the last thing we need during a public health crisis. 

In addition, without stable, long-term funding, it’s incredibly challenging to attract and retain the staff needed to respond to that crisis — never mind plan for the future. This is especially true for health centers operating in rural locations.

As part of the emergency coronavirus spending bill passed by Congress, health centers will receive some additional funding. I’m afraid it’s not enough. 

Health centers have long provided critical front-line care during public health crises, including influenza outbreaks (i.e., H1N1), the opioid crises, and other infectious disease (e.g., hepatitis A). But our ability to continue doing so hangs in the balance.

If we really want to ensure Michigan and the rest of the nation are adequately prepared to respond to the deadly threat of COVID-19, we must call on Congress to make long-term funding for health centers an immediate priority. 

In the meantime, wash your hands. Cough into the crook of your elbow. Practice social distancing. And if you experience any flu-like symptoms, such as fever, cough or difficulty breathing, call your provider before you head to the clinic.

But there’s one more way you can protect yourself and others from COVID-19: Pick up your phone, call your member of Congress and ask them to pass funding for community health centers before it’s too late.

Dr. Felix Valbuena Jr. is chief executive officer of the Community Health and Social Services Center.