Along with introducing his picks for top Department of Health and Human Services posts yesterday, President Obama announced something that may touch closer to home for many uninsured and underinsured Americans: $155 million to establish 126 new community health centers across the United States. (You can click here to go to the list of states that will receive more funding and links to existing community health centers in your area.)
Community health centers, which provide mostly primary care and preventive services to all comers at more than 7,000 locations, served 18 million people last year. As workers lose their jobs and employers pull back on coverage, those numbers are growing, according to the National Association of Community Health Centers. By law, no one is turned away from a community health center; patients are charged a sliding fee based on their ability to pay.
When I talked yesterday with Brian Toomey, CEO of Piedmont Health Services near Chapel Hill, N.C., he was sitting out a snowstorm that had closed the clinic and waiting to hear whether his group would get any of the new funding. Just over half of the roughly 40,000 people Piedmont serves are uninsured, he said, and 92 percent of them earn 200 percent of the poverty level (about $44,000 for a family of four) or less. In recent months, Toomey says, he's seeing lots of former patients who had moved on to regular private medical care with employee health insurance but are now returning to the clinic because they've lost their jobs or their employers have cut benefits.
Piedmont operates six clinics that offer primary care, family practice services, dental care (at four sites), pharmacy benefits, a WIC program that provides nutritional assistance for mothers and children, and social services assistance. "Just over 3.5 new North Carolinians are born every day who get their initial pediatric care at one of our sites," he says.
But there's never enough money to serve everyone. The NACHC estimates that 56 million people in the United States lack access to primary care. If Toomey had received additional funding that he requested last year, he says, Piedmont could serve 4,000 more patients.
A few hours after we talked, I got the list of grantees that would receive the new funding. Piedmont wasn't on it. The money went only to brand-new sites. But the stimulus package provided $500 million for health services altogether, and advocates are hopeful that community health centers like Piedmont that want to expand existing services will be included in the next round of funding. Both areas are important. In fact, though it may not make headlines like the nomination of Kathleen Sebelius for HHS secretary, the expansion of funding for community health centers may be the more noteworthy event for millions of Americans.