KFF Survey Offers a Snapshot of Pandemic, Inflation on Health Center Patients

Community Health Centers have been called the “canary in the coal mine” more than once, owing to the fact that the vulnerable patients they serve typically suffer the worst blowback of any public health crisis. A case in point is this new KFF survey, which shows how pandemic and inflationary pressures are generating an increase of patients seeking non-medical services such as housing, food, nutrition, and transportation.

Over half of health centers surveyed say that amid the economic disruption of the pandemic, more patients are seeking social and supportive services that complement primary care. Those services include on-site health literacy (71%) and transportation services (63%). More tellingly at least 4 in 10 report providing SNAP, WIC, or other nutritional services (44%) and healthy food options, such as an on-site food pantry or meal delivery (42%).

Many health centers across the country have long been focused on addressing food insecurity for patients, operating food pantries, working with food banks and even operating community gardens. Konza Community Health Center in Junction City, Kansas, for instance, was recently honored by the Harkin Institute for their work to prioritize nutrition and improve health and wellness in their community. Supply chain challenges have ramped up the urgency to address food insecurity as part of primary care. The Department of Health and Human Services has also taken action during the baby formula shortage by posting information about how to find safe and affordable substitutes.

The pandemic and an ongoing mental health crisis — especially among teenagers and children — has also amplified the need for behavioral health services. About half of health centers (48%) saw an increase in patients with opioid use disorder during the pandemic and a rising need for medication-assisted treatment services.

Another issue to track is the availability of low-cost prescription drugs through the 340B program, a federal program that allows health centers to offer patients discounted prescription medications. The KFF survey notes a majority of health centers report that pharmaceutical manufacturers and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) are taking actions will limit access and reimbursement for 340B drugs. NACHC has made protecting access to 340B drugs a top priority and will have more information to come on this front.

Amy Simmons Farber is NACHC’s Associate Vice President of Media Relations.

PHOTO CREDIT: The Konza pantry at Konza Prairie Community Health Center, Junction City, Kansas.