Health Matters: Community Health Centers – Rooted in Equity for All
Every August, we celebrate National Health Center Week. It’s a time to reflect on the contributions of the 1,400 federally funded community health centers that care for people from America’s inner cities to the most rural and remote parts of our country.
In 1965, the Civil Rights Movement and President Johnson’s War on Poverty led to a demonstration project called Neighborhood Health Centers (now called community health centers)—providing essential services to people who were often otherwise excluded. As a community health center, we are part of a legacy that has helped racial minorities and other persecuted groups receive access to the quality healthcare they deserve. We were created to light the way to health for people who often face adversity, and we’re still doing so today.
Now as then, it is our responsibility to provide culturally competent care, which includes understanding and addressing the needs of people who fall into a wide range of skin colors, spiritual beliefs, gender identities, socio-economic statuses, sexual orientations, and common values. We also provide comprehensive care, including medical, dental, and behavioral health, because we understand that physical and psychological wellness cannot be separated.
Part of how community health centers remain responsive to the needs of local people is through our governance. Community health centers are non-profit organizations with governing boards that reflect local demographics and include at least 51 percent patients who receive their care with us. Our board members help us identify unmet health needs so we can address them. They share the barriers they must overcome to gain access to health care so we can help tear those barriers down. They oversee our budgets to ensure we are responsible stewards of the federal funding we receive.
In addition to our unusual governance structure, community health centers draw a special kind of staff. As a rule, the people who work in our health centers put others before themselves, and they welcome the challenge of working with our community’s most vulnerable people.
During this pandemic, I’ve seen people in every corner of our organization put the needs of our patients before their own. When schools and daycare centers closed, employees found creative ways to keep their children safe and cared for while they came to work every day. When frightening stories about COVID-19 hit the news, our employees put on masks and other personal protective equipment as they went out to meet patients who had coronavirus symptoms to screen them, educate them, reassure them, and care for them.
While I am incredibly proud of the work of community health centers nationwide and the impact we have on tens of millions of people every year, I recognize we are not in this alone. We are a point of care in a system of care, a system made up of community partners who are equally dedicated to our goal of helping people live healthier lives. By working with community benefit organizations, hospitals, and government agencies, we can diagnose and treat illness, help people set and reach their personal health goals, and route people to resources that help them address the social determinants of health, such as housing and economic stability.
In 1977, at the dedication of the Hubert H. Humphrey Building in Washington, D.C., former vice president Humphrey spoke about the treatment of the most vulnerable members of society as a reflection of a government: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
The bipartisan support community health centers receive is a testament to a nation that, while divided in many ways and in need of continual improvement, still comes together to take care of our most vulnerable.
Scott McFarland is the chief executive officer of MCHC Health Centers—a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.