The United States currently faces the toughest economic times since the Great Depression, with an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent in September. This is bad news for families in HMOs as studies show that for every one percent that unemployment rises, the number of adults receiving health coverage from employers drops by that same amount. Times like these highlight the vital importance of quality nonprofit community health centers, otherwise known as community clinics.
Often referred to as the “safety net” for low-income and medically underserved communities, community clinics play an essential role in providing affordable, quality healthcare to an ever-growing population of patients. Today’s clinics are modern operations that specialize in primary care and serve any patient who walks through the door, regardless of their ability to pay. They provide patients with a medical “home” where they can receive regular checkups for the whole family and can develop long-term relationships with a primary care doctor. Many community clinics also provide behavioral health services, dental health services, assistance with enrollment into coverage programs, and referrals for specialty care.
Studies have shown that the quality of healthcare provided at community clinics is excellent, patient satisfaction surveys continue to show overwhelming satisfaction with care received. In addition to being high quality, clinic healthcare services are provided in a language that patients can understand and with an appreciation for how different cultures view the medical system. Research has shown that patients who receive care at community clinics have lower medical costs because providing quality primary care services can reduce the need for other ambulatory and hospital-based medical care, thereby lowering overall medical costs. This means that patients are served in a timely and affordable way before they wind up in the emergency room with a condition that could have been prevented. A policy research brief completed by the Geiger Gibson/RCHN Community Health Foundation Research Collaborative found that community clinics save $24 billion annually in medical expenses.
The passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or Healthcare Reform, on March 23, 2010 set the stage to expand healthcare coverage for nearly all Americans and help curb health care costs. Community health centers are well positioned to help the nation achieve both these goals and have, in fact, been touted by policy makers and the President as models of effective, quality and economically savvy healthcare delivery. President Obama stated in December 2009, “I especially want to recognize the leaders from health centers across the country for what all of you are doing in your communities every day –- working long hours to provide quality care at prices that people can afford, with the dignity and respect they deserve, and in a way that takes into account the challenges that they face in their lives.” As implementation of Healthcare Reform continues, community clinics will play an increasingly critical role in the redesign of the safety-net delivery system and ensure expanded access to care.