CommUnityCare Health Centers became part of the Central Texas health care safety net in 2009, but our story is just the latest chapter in the region’s efforts to ensure care.
The State of Texas first gave the counties responsibility for what was known as indigent health care in 1891, with cities such as Austin filling in the gaps with public hospitals.
With the increasing sophistication and cost of health care in the 1960s and 1970s, the state and federal governments began to put pressure on employers to provide health insurance for employees, and the federal government began to provide insurance for those over the age of 65 and those with disabilities. However, gaps still existed for some who were unable to pay for the care they needed.
In 1970, the Austin City Council partnered with the Travis County Commissioners Court to develop a system of primary care, dental care and family planning clinics. The goal of this effort was to serve residents of Travis County whose incomes and lack of private health insurance kept them from being able to access health care services in the community.
The East Austin Clinic became the first publicly funded clinic in the community to serve those with limited resources. And over time, the partnership grew into a system of public health clinics and, at the time, more rural clinics in Pflugerville, Manor, Del Valle and in western Travis County.
This change also allowed the city and county to implement programs aimed at improving the health of their residents, including women, infants and children (WIC) and the Medical Assistance Program, which is still operated today.
Building a System
In 1992, the Austin-Travis County clinic system earned “Federally Qualified Health Center Look-Alike” status through the federal government. A 15-member Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) board of directors was appointed to govern the Community Health Center system. FQHC boards are required to have a majority of members who are active patients in the system, representing the populations served by the centers in terms of ethnicity, race, sex, age and economic status.
In 2001, the Community Health Center system was officially designated a Federally Qualified Health Center. While the designation meant that the system was subject to greater federal scrutiny, it also meant that the system had access to more funding and additional protections that ultimately reduced the cost of the health care it provided.
A growing nationwide network of more than 1,250 FQHCs serves 20 million people. Congress created the FQHC program to support primary care providers who serve larger numbers of uninsured residents and operate in medically underserved communities.
In 2004, Travis County voters approved the creation of the Travis County Healthcare District, now known as Central Health. The district is responsible for providing health care to indigent persons residing in Travis County. The district moved funding and oversight from the City of Austin to Central Health, which not only pays for primary care in Travis County, but indigent care at the safety net hospital and other providers in Travis County.
Birth of CommUnityCare Health Centers
With Central Health as a vital partner and owner of the clinic system, the City of Austin departments that operated the clinics transitioned in 2009 to the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Central Texas CommUnity Heath Care Centers (dba CommUnityCare Health Centers).
At the time of the transition, CommUnityCare operated 14 clinics and had an annual budget of $151 million. In 2021, CommUnityCare operates more than 27 clinics. Over 116,000 patients were seen during more than 432,000 appointments in 2020.
Today, most of its funding comes from Central Health and the Federal Bureau of Primary Health Care. Public and private grants also support the work of CommUnityCare. More than 50% of its patients do not have insurance.
CommUnityCare has made significant investments in recent years in specialty care, including the acquisitions of Austin OB-GYN in 2018 and Carousel Pediatrics in 2019.
The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic posed a major disruption to the entire community. Like all health care providers, CommUnityCare felt the effects and at the same time provided care to communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic. We have served as an important community partner in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, providing mass testing and vaccinations. Even amid the ongoing pandemic, in March 2021, CommUnityCare launched a new medical records system to better serve patients and connect them to their providers.
CommUnityCare continues to evaluate the needs of the community and develop new partnerships as the health care needs of Central Texas continue to evolve.