The Benefits of Community Health Centers

If you are struggling to find healthcare that you can afford, you are not alone. Many people have jobs that don’t provide health insurance and don’t pay enough to afford buying coverage. Or they have lost their jobs during the pandemic. If this is you, you may be overlooking a resource that can help you: a community health center.

Community health centers are also called federal qualified health centers and, as their name says, they provide healthcare—especially primary care—in the community. They provide high-quality healthcare services in underserved areas where there are people with limited access to health care. These centers are frequently located in rural or inner-city locations to provide affordable care.

An important point is that community health centers provide health services to everyone regardless of whether they can pay. For people who have some income, they charge on a sliding fee scale.

Community health centers help women and children by providing important OBGYN and pediatric care. Getting the type of quality prenatal care provided by a center reduces the risk of low birth weight, according to the National Association of Community Health Centers.

The Health Center Program is administered through the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Community health centers serve more than more than 30 million people in more than 13,000 rural and urban communities in the United States. This is about one in every eleven people, and includes one in eight children.

There are about 1,400 health centers operating at nearly 13,000 sites, with some centers having many locations. They can be found in every state, territory, and in the District of Columbia.

Community health centers provide healthcare for populations that are largely marginalized and vulnerable. These include homeless people, people with mental health issues, people who are at risk for homelessness, seasonal and migrant farm workers, people who do not speak English or don’t speak it well, and residents of public housing.

To be eligible to be a federally qualified health center, it must be community based and patient-directed. This means that people who are patients of a center make up the majority of its board of directors, the groups that makes the decisions for the center. Patients, therefore, are the people who shape the direction of the center and form its leadership.

These centers offer primary care, which includes sick visits, diagnosing and treating chronic diseases like asthma and diabetes, depression, heart and lung disease, and screening for cancer. They also offer regular checkups and preventative care such as vaccinations.

At this time, community health centers are receiving steady supplies of the vaccines against COVID-19.

Community health centers have physicians on staff, including pediatricians, gynecologists, and obstetricians, as well as family physicians and nurse practitioners. They often have dental clinics on site with dentists and dental hygienists to provide care for people’s teeth. They may also have pharmacies on site, as well, so that prescriptions can be filled easily.

Getting preventive care and having a place to go for regular healthcare needs can reduce the risk of bigger health issues happening later. It is generally less expensive to treat a health problem early than wait for it to be further advanced and far more serious. Visiting a community health center is  cheaper than a visit to an emergency room. In 2012, the average cost for a health center medical visit was less than one-sixth the average cost of an emergency room visit. The care is coordinated, which means that several specialties are operating within the center or centers and all a person’s medical records are available.

Health centers often have staff that speak several languages and are aware of cultural issues in their communities. Some operate mobile vans that bring healthcare out into the community.

The majority of health center operating funds come from Medicaid, Medicare, private insurance, patient fees, and other resources. Most receive Health Center Program federal grant funding to improve the health of underserved and vulnerable populations. Some health centers that meet all Health Center Program requirements do not receive Federal award funding and are called health center lookalikes, but they still serve the communities where they are located.

HRSA has a website that can help people find a community health center near them.

Valerie DeBenedette
Valerie DeBenedette is an experienced health and medical writer who lives about an hour north of New York City with a dog that is smaller than her cat. Her work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, newsletters, and on websites. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

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