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Investing in Community Health Centers: a prescription for good health

This week something remarkable will happen in election season politics. Leaders at the local, state and national level, including more than 75 Members of Congress, will visit a health center to mark National Health Center Week 2016. Their presence will demonstrate not only is it possible to move beyond the partisan divide, but to support and agree on a program vital to the strength and health of the nation’s communities. 

Community Health Centers started out more than 50 years ago as a small demonstration project in the War on Poverty.  Today, it stands as the largest and most successful primary care system, serving one in 13 Americans.  They treat the most chronically ill and economically disadvantaged patients for a fraction of the cost of a hospital emergency room visit.  

{mosads}Yet, it is not sufficient to describe health centers as just another health care program. They are more than that.  They are problem-solvers that reach beyond the walls of the exam room not only to prevent illness but also address the factors that actually cause poor health, such as homelessness, lack of nutrition, stress or unemployment. They are innovators in treating chronic conditions that are typically ignored until they become a costly illness. They are community providers who are often the “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to confronting emerging public health challenges, such as the nationwide opioid addiction epidemic, and the Zika virus, and lead contaminated water in Flint, Michigan. Nationally, 421,000 children were screened for lead exposure at a health center.

None of this would be possible without the support and vision of leaders who put aside their political differences. Why? Because they understand the value of health centers in their own neighborhoods and backyards.  Health centers are as diverse as the populations they serve, no two are alike. They are run by the people who use them, ensuring the care is directed efficiently where and when it is needed the most. Going forward, the biggest challenge remains demand.  There are still 62 million people with little or no access to affordable primary care. 

Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has pushed for an expansion of health centers, following in the footsteps of former President George W. Bush and President Obama. Their initiatives have doubled the number of health centers, making it possible for them to serve more than 25 million people.  In the last year alone health centers have added 1.5 million patients, including a six percent growth in the number of veterans receiving care.

Earlier this year, 308 U.S. Representatives and 62 Senators weighed in with the Appropriations Committees in support of investing in health centers. Yet, even such historic support for a program is no guarantee for long-term funding, which is critical for meeting future population health needs.

Even as more Americans are gaining access to insurance coverage, we need to make certain there are places for them to get care.  Investment in health centers and primary care is a prescription for good health.  It is also good politics in the public interest.

Tom Van Coverden is president of the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC).

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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