Community Health Center leaders were front and center today at a hearing chaired by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging [press release]. The hearing, “Addressing Primary Care Access and Workforce Challenges: Voices from the Field” focused on the primary care access crisis, doctor shortages and strategies to boost the number of providers around the country. Gary Wiltz, MD, NACHC’s Board Chair and CEO of Teche Action Clinic in Franklin, LA, was among those who testified before the panel [link to testimony]. Wiltz– whose health center is located in a rural parish with a large, low-income, uninsured population– described to the Senate panel how access remains a persistent problem in the community he services.
“Many of the residents in my state, both the uninsured and insured, are unable to access critical primary and preventative care services because they just can’t afford it or do not have access to a health center or other primary care provider,” he said. “Clearly our work is not done. Despite the strong bipartisan support and the history of investment in our capacity, many communities in need still lack a health center or any other form of basic primary care. Even in communities with a health center, demand often far exceeds supply and significant unmet needs remain due to limited resources.”
Wiltz also illustrated how timely access to care can not only save lives as well as dollars and recalled a recent encounter with a patient.
“Just recently, one of my patients, who is employed but uninsured, came to the health center on a Saturday evening after he got off work at 6:00 PM. He was suffering from a severe headache due to dangerously high blood pressure. We were able to get him in, diagnose the problem and treat him that evening, which saved him from waiting for hours to be seen at an emergency room and paying over $800.00. Our ability to see him and provide him with services when he needed care also allowed him to go to work the next day.”
Yet such access to primary care remains elusive for millions of people. NACHC recently issued a report showing that 62 million Americans lack access to primary care largely because of a shortage of primary care physicians. Sen. Sanders noted in his remarks that the U.S. will “need over 50,000 primary care physicians in our country” by next year. Sanders added, “One of the great ironies of the moment is that while there are some people who think we save money by cutting back on public health programs, whether it’s Medicare or Medicaid, the truth of the matter is we end up spending more money by not providing acess to health care [and] dental care when people actually need it. It’s a question of human suffering, it’s a question of preventing death, preventing illness and it is a question of saving money.”
Sanders also has introduced legislation to attract more doctors and other health care providers to primary care. The bill would boost funding for Community Health Centers and dramatically increase opportunities for medical school graduates to go into family medicine by expanding the National Health Service Corps (NHSC)
Dr. James Hotz, M.D., Clinical Cervices Director, of Albany Area Primary Care, a health center in rural Georgia, also testified during the hearing and told lawmakers, that the NHSC “is the single most effective policy innovation this country has ever developed to address the primary care workforce challenge.”