Health Matters: Why Everyone Depends on Community Health Centers

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Above: Community Health Centers

August 2017

As the debate about health care reform rages on Capitol Hill, most of us just want to know we’ll have access to well-trained medical professionals when we get sick or injured—and we don’t want to have to choose between getting health care and avoiding bankruptcy.

Access to quality care is precisely what community health centers (CHCs) have been offering for more than fifty years, and this week—National Health Center Week—is the perfect time to tell you about these wonderful resources. Nationally, about one out of every twelve people receives care in a CHC. In California, it’s about one in seven; and in MCHC Health Center’s service area, which includes much of inland Mendocino County and Lake County, it’s about one out of every four people—that’s a quarter of our local population!  

In Lake and Mendocino Counties, we have a consortium called the Alliance for Rural Community Health (ARCH), in which local CHCs work together to make sure people in our service areas have access to the care they need. ARCH members include my organization—MCHC Health Centers, which has facilities in Ukiah, Willits and Lakeport. Other members include Anderson Valley Health Center in Boonville, Baechtel Creek Medical Clinic in Willits, Long Valley Health Center in Laytonville, Mendocino Coast Clinics in Fort Bragg, and Redwood Coast Medical Services in Gualala and Point Arena.

Community Health Centers like ours serve more than 25 million Americans annually, and have consistently received bipartisan support (which is rare these days). The reason both Republicans and Democrats support CHCs is because we provide excellent care while reducing unnecessary costs.

For example, when people receive health care in CHCs, they can often prevent their illnesses from progressing to the point where they need expensive emergency room care or hospitalizations. Also, CHCs provide extensive health education, care coordination, and wellness/prevention services; we teach people how to stay healthy so they can avoid the need for medical care altogether. Finally, we provide some after hours and weekend appointments so people do not need to use the Emergency Department to avoid missing work. Some estimates suggest that CHCs help save as much as $24 billion in annual health system costs.

The mission of CHCs is to make sure that everyone has access to care in their communities. While we focus on some vulnerable populations such as the poor and the elderly, we know that in rural areas everyone struggles to get the care they need, because there simply aren’t enough doctors to go around.

CHCs do not turn people away because they cannot afford to pay. We provide care to patients regardless of whether they have insurance, and we help patients sign up for public insurance programs like Partnership Health Plan, Medi-Cal and Medicare if they qualify. I know some people complain about their tax dollars going to support these programs, but here’s the truth: without the federal funds associated with Medi-Cal and Medicare, most doctors would not be able to afford to practice medicine in small, rural counties like ours. It doesn’t matter how good your insurance is if there’s no one here to take care of you.

I thought County Supervisor Dan Hamburg said it well when he shared his opinion at a recent Board of Supervisors’ meeting. “Anyone who doesn’t realize how important the [Affordable Care Act] has been for Mendocino County really isn’t looking at the facts,” he said, and he’s right. The ACA funds much of the prevention and wellness care that keeps people out of the hospital, among other benefits.

At CHCs, we are doing our best to lead the way as health care shifts from sick care to wellness maintenance. It just makes sense: it’s less expensive and it makes people feel better. By providing medical care, dental care, obstetrics and women’s health, and behavioral health care, we serve as patient-centered medical homes—health hubs where patients receive primary care and where their health team can coordinate specialty care when needed. 

Carole Press 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. 

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