Getty Images/iStockphoto

Community Health Centers Offer Care Access for 31.5M Patients

Community health centers expand care access for underserved groups, but a looming lapse in funding threatens that moving forward.

New data from the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) outlines the expansive reach of community health centers, showing how the clinics extend care access to numerous traditionally underserved populations like the unhoused, low-income people, and those without health insurance.

As part of the 2023 National Health Center Week, NACHC unveiled that 31.5 million people now receive care from a community health center at 15,000 different locations. That rounds out to 1 in 11 people who visit a community health center, the organization said.

Community health centers are defined as “nonprofit, patient-governed organizations that provide high-quality, comprehensive primary health care to America's medically underserved communities, serving all patients regardless of income or insurance status.”

Typically, community health centers and federally-qualified health centers (FQHCs) deliver healthcare services to traditionally underserved and marginalized groups, like low-income people, communities of color, and those in rural areas.

This latest data confirms that.

One in five (19 percent) of the 31.5 million people getting care at a community health center are uninsured, while 61 percent have public insurance like Medicare, Medicaid, or CHIP. Another 41 percent of the patients are rural residents, and 64 percent are members of racial and/or ethnic minority groups.

Notably, a sizeable 90 percent of community health center patients are low-income, the report noted.

All said, community health centers are the primary healthcare provider for one in five uninsured people, one in three people living in poverty, and one in seven rural residents. They administer healthcare for 1.4 million people experiencing homelessness, 8.8 million children, 400,000 veterans, and 3.5 million patients over age 65.

And in delivering care to the nation’s most underserved, community health centers have also proven good for the economy, NACHC indicated with the data. These healthcare facilities are job creators for 285,000 employees and drove $85 billion in economic activity in 2022. In that same year, community health centers generated $24 billion in savings for the nation’s healthcare system.

But despite these benefits, NACHC said community health centers are in trouble. The federal funding used to fuel these health centers is set to expire on September 30, 2023, and if that deadline lapses, it’ll result in a 70 percent cut in federal funding.

“Health centers already operate on thin financial margins and require sustained and reliable funding to recruit workforce and plan essential primary care services to meet the demand for care, such as behavioral health, dental, vaccinations, and routine preventive services that divert the chronically ill from costly hospital emergency room visits,” NACHC wrote in a press release about the National Health Center Week.

The organization acknowledged that there is bipartisan agreement that community health center funding needs to get passed, and stressed the urgency behind that. In July 2023, NACHC estimated that nearly 7 million patients would lose healthcare access if health centers lost those funds.

Earlier in National Health Center Week, President Joe Biden issued a proclamation that stopped just short of calling on Congress to approve that funding. The proclamation detailed the way in which community health centers support the Administration’s overall mission for addressing health equity.

“Community health centers are key to tackling health care disparities in underserved communities,” Biden wrote in the proclamation.

“These investments are a matter of human dignity and fairness,” he added. “When we fail to invest in the health outcomes of some communities, we all suffer.  But when we take the necessary actions to improve care in every zip code, we are all better for it.”

The issue of community health center funding is fraught. A March 2023 assessment from NACHC showed that the cost to deliver medical care has far outpaced the rate at which the government has allocated funding. Since 2015, federal funding for community health centers has grown 14 percent from $5 billion to $5.7 billion.

But during that same time, medical care inflation has grown by 25 percent. That shakes out to a 9.3 percent decrease in federal funding in real terms, NACHC said. To that end, the organization said community health centers need federal funding to be increased by $2.1 billion in order to achieve the same per-patient spending level as in 2015.

Next Steps

Dig Deeper on Patient data access

xtelligent Health IT and EHR