Health Center News

The Challenges to Providing Eqaul Health Care Access to All

Today’s guest blog post is by Susan West Levine, CEO of Lowell Community Health Center in Massachusetts.  This article originally appeared in the March/April’17 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine, Reprinted with permission from the publisher, 512 Media, Inc.

Photo Credit: Kevin Harkins

As CEO of Lowell Community Health Center (CHC), I am often asked just what a Community Health Center is. I tell people that a CHC is like any primary care provider, with one exception: We do not turn anyone away due to inability to pay.

Lowell CHC provides equal health care access to everyone in Greater Lowell. That means caring for patients who speak more than 40 languages, including some refugees who experienced torture and persecution. In nearby Lawrence, the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center focuses on the cultural needs and health concerns of a predominantly Latino population.

It is safe to say that no two CHCs look the same.

Lowell CHC accepts public and private insurance and earns 74 percent of our income from fees and services, raising the remaining 26 percent through contributions, grants and a small number of subcontracts. We also operate a pharmacy, which is open to patients and the general public, and partner with Circle Health/Lowell General Hospital to offer a full-service lab. These are amenities typically available in larger private practices. Both are on-site. Soon we will offer dental and vision services.

CHCs are not your typical health care providers. More than 88 percent of Lowell CHC patients earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Forty-six percent of our patients are best served in a language other than English, which is why we provide medical interpretation — a service not covered by insurance — in 28 languages. We also operate two full-service, school-based health centers, one at Lowell High School and another at Stoklosa Middle School, making it easier to assure that students have required vaccines and easy access to health care and behavioral health services.

Our patients often have complicated stories and involved medical needs. We might spend as much time making sure a patient has food and shelter as we do taking their vitals and gauging their physical health. And our community health workers are out in the community, visiting patients at home, screening people for diabetes or high blood pressure at health fairs, senior centers and during festivals and community events. Our behavioral health services provide prompt mental health care. By offering affordable health services to those who might otherwise visit hospital emergency rooms for routine care, CHCs reduce unnecessary and costly emergency room and hospital admissions.

Lowell CHC is a vital resource in our community, both as a health care provider serving 50,000 people annually and as an economic engine. The health center movement was launched 51 years ago, right here in Massachusetts, providing health care to all and creating jobs in communities where living-wage job opportunities were lacking. Lowell CHC is the 10th largest employer in the city of Lowell, providing jobs to nearly 400 people from throughout the Merrimack Valley.

So, what exactly is a Community Health Center? It’s a vital health care resource assuring that everyone — you, me, our neighbors and friends — has equal access to the kind of health care we all deserve.