Community health centers have long been on the front lines of public health, serving low-income communities that others so often neglect. But COVID-19 has put these systems under significant stress—systems that are absolutely key in the fight against the pandemic and in reopening the economy, as they assist many of the people who are essential workers and who have been hit especially hard by the pandemic.
Fortunately, Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan promises to increase federal support. Indeed, the Biden administration’s national COVID strategy even calls for a new partnership with community health centers. That call is important. As NPQ noted last December, community health centers are trusted sites for vaccinations; their role will be crucial if the nation’s enormous racial vaccination gap is to be closed.
Community health centers were first established in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, which sought to reduce the US poverty rate, then at 19 percent. Dr. H. Jack Geiger, along with other health activists, worked with the newly formed Office of Economic Opportunity to create health centers for people living in poor rural and urban communities who were receiving inadequate medical care.
What began as two “neighborhood health centers” in Massachusetts and Mississippi has evolved over the past 56 years into a system of care that provides local health services for 30 million people (approximately one in 11 Americans) at over 1,400 organizations. Situated at the intersection of economic development and patient-centered, equal access healthcare, this nonprofit model of healthcare uses both federal funds and local resources to meet the physical, mental, and emotional needs of the country’s poorest citizens, many of whom are people of color, and whose limited access to health care derives from longstanding systemic racism and disenfranchisement.
Community health centers provide holistic care regardless of whether patients can pay and have historically received broad political support. These centers treat people of color, people with low incomes, people whose primary language is something other than English, and those who are either uninsured or publicly insured (e.g., insured through Medicaid). These centers provide their patients with not only primary health services but also orthopedic care, cardiac care, dental services, mental health services, nutrition education, translation services, and transportation to appointments. They also prioritize culturally appropriate care in the languages their patients speak.
Peter Shin, Rebecca Morris, Maria Velasquez, Sara Rosenbaum, and Alexander Somodevilla write for Health Affairs that these centers “serve over one in five uninsured people [and] have emerged as a health care backbone for state Medicaid programs. Nationally, nearly one in five Medicaid patients obtains care at a community health center; in 10 states and the District of Columbia, this figure stands at one in four.”
The community health center model focuses on treating the many factors that contribute to human health and wellness, significantly reducing future hospitalization and emergency room visits. They are a notable exception in a