CommUnityCare™ Health Centers Continues Important Work as National Funding Deadline Approaches
For most Central Texans with health insurance, the decision to see a family practice or pediatric provider is a simple calculation. Is this visit worth the co-pay and the time spent getting and going to the appointment?
For those without health insurance, that same decision is much more complex. The math for uninsured individuals starts with what the out-of-pocket costs for seeing a doctor will be, with this increased by the costs of needed lab work, prescriptions, transportation costs to get to their appointment, and, for many, lost wages because their employer does not provide leave benefits. For those who are low income and uninsured, these projected costs are unaffordable, and all too often lead to a delay in getting care or skipping care altogether.
Ensuring that primary care medical and dental services can be accessed by our low-income and uninsured neighbors is at the heart of the high-quality and affordable healthcare provided by the nation’s almost 1,400 federally funded health centers. Authorized under Section 330 of the US Public Health Service Act, these health centers serve over 30 million patients a year and are required to render care without regard to a patient’s insurance status, with low-income patients able to pay significantly less for their care based on financial means. In return, these health centers receive a federal grant to support their care provision, although, most of a health center’s services are supported by billing revenues.
Annually, the federal government invests almost $6 billion in grants to support primary care services to uninsured/uninsured patients cared for by the nation’s health centers. This investment has consistently saved the United States health system an estimated $24 billion a year with these same health centers also serving as important medical access points and employers within federally designated underserved communities.
Locally, the CommUnityCare™ Health Centers is one of the largest health centers in the country and is the second largest in Texas, operates 28 health centers in Austin and its surrounding communities. Thanks to support and partnership with Central Health, CommUnityCare served more than 129,000 unique patients in 2022, of whom, 97% had incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level, 87% self-reported as a minority, 57% were best served in language other than English, and approximately 85% were Travis County residents.
Each year in August, the efforts of the nation’s health centers’ work are recognized during National Health Center Week. As part of our celebrations this year from August 6 – 12, CommUnityCare and Central Health will be opening the Chalmers Courts Health Center. This new health center, located in East Austin, is just one example of how community health centers leverage community partnerships and government funding to creatively fill community healthcare gaps. Even with the changes in East Austin’s historic demographics, pockets of lower-income households remain, often with more complex healthcare needs than their more affluent neighbors. Retaining affordable and accessible healthcare options in Austin’s city core is critically important to meeting the needs of our lower-income neighbors.
So, in partnership with the Housing Authority of the City of Austin and Central Health, the CommUnityCare has converted two of the historic housing units at the Pathways at Chalmers Courts public housing development on Chicon Street into a primary and dental healthcare clinic that will serve the residents of Chalmers Courts and low-income individuals that live nearby.
Yet, even as we are celebrating this grand opening, 70% of the federal funding supporting health centers are at risk unless Congress passes legislation renewing the Community Health Center Fund before the end of September. This funding uncertainty has already disrupted service planning for many health centers with many already planning for service reductions should funding not be renewed.
While this represents another math equation that needs to be solved, it is one that has a profound impact on those served by health centers like the CommUnityCare Health Centers. This issue is even more significant when one considers what it means for our and the nation’s health center patients.
Access to health care within our communities is critically important to achieving greater health equity – something that CommUnityCare and peer health centers work daily to achieve. In the end, the calculus matters for all of us. Delayed care costs because the math is too much for low-income uninsured patients to overcome costs more than dollars. It costs the viability and vitality of communities because it can result in preventive years of life lost. One thing we know for certain is that the equation for better health is accessing healthcare when it is needed. We also know that the best way to save healthcare dollars nationally is to engage and empower patients in their care, including ensuring that preventative services like cancer screenings are obtained.
So, as we celebrate National Health Center Week and the tremendous work of the healthcare professionals and staff caring for the nation’s medically vulnerable including the CommUnityCare team, call on Congress to continue its long-standing support of the Community Health Center Fund and to renew this most important funding prior to September 30th.
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Jaeson T. Fournier, D.C., MPH, is the chief executive officer of the CommUnityCare Health Centers, which operates 28 community health centers in Central Texas, serving more than 129,000 individuals. He also serves on the board of the Texas Association of Community Health Centers.