Stimulus dollars for healthcare centers were an economic boon, a report says

The $2 billion channeled to community health centers by last year's economic stimulus bill was paid back to the economy on a two-for-one basis, according to researchers at George Washington University.

The result has been $3.2 billion in economic activity as the federally funded safety-net providers spent their funding boost on expanding and improving their facilities, beefing up their information technology systems and hiring and holding onto medical personnel and staff, according to a report issued by the Geiger Gibson/RCHN Community Health Foundation Research Collaborative at the George Washington University School ofPublic Health and Health Services's department of health policy and funded by the United Health Foundation and the RCHN Community Health Foundation.

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The practical result will be that nearly 3 million additional patients will be able to obtain medical care at community health centers by 2011, bringing the total number of people served to 21 million each year, roughly 40 percent of whom are uninsured.

The report emphasizes that these facilities cater to the needs of the poor and those living in areas under-served by other types of medical providers, making their value even higher to such communities during the recession. Areas with the worst economic conditions received a greater share of the new health centers funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). "ARRA’s direct investments in health centers are expected to provide significant relief to many communities hit hardest by the recession, since the factors that make a community eligible for a health center – elevated poverty, shortages of primary care, and elevated health risks – are also characteristics of communities that are disproportionately minority, have a lower-wage workforce and have experienced the highest rates of job loss," the report says.

The additional money has "strengthened health centers’ ability to respond to the economic crisis through both healthcare and job creation and retention. Achieving and maintaining these investments is crucial, both in the near-term and in anticipation of broader health reform,” Sara Rosenbaum, on of the study's authors and chairwoman of the GWU Department of Health Policy, said in a statement.

The money would have gone twice as far, however, were the economy in better shape, the report notes: "The returns are lower now since most of the gains in estimated economic activity are offset by higher unemployment levels and other effects of the recession." So far, $1.85 billion of the funding has already been distributed.