NACHC’s Board Chair, Gary Wiltz, MD, published the following commentary today in Modern Healthcare magazine. Dr. Wiltz is the President and CEO of Teche Action Clinic in Franklin, LA.
As a young doctor, my first job was serving in one of the poorest and most rural parishes in Louisiana. I had a three-year commitment to serve with the National Health Service Corps, which, in return, paid for my medical education. Thirty-two years later, I’m still there, leading the same Community Health Center where I started. I chose to stay because access to care—a key issue in the ongoing national discussion—is a struggle for people in my community.
Yet, progress made so far to improve access to care in the nation’s fragile and rural communities is now threatened.
Some 62 million Americans lack access to primary care because of a variety of factors that include geography, income and a shortage of available doctors, according to the National Association of Community Health Centers. People from all walks of life are affected. Nearly half (42%) are low-income and 28% live in rural areas. Surprisingly, the vast majority do have health insurance.
People need both insurance and access to care. In my corner of Louisiana, we are open six days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. because our patients, who are low-income and often chronically ill, need care before and after working hours. By making access more convenient, we not only improve our residents’ well-being, but reduce unnecessary visits to hospital ERs by more than 40%.
The Affordable Care Act provided resources to double the size of Community Health Centers like mine. This critical funding is scheduled to expire after 2015. Without a fix from Congress, the centers face a 70% reduction in grant funding. The impact would be disastrous. Our clinic alone would be forced to shelve plans to open two needed clinic sites, close some sites and lay off staff. Over 3,000 patients would have to find care elsewhere, much farther away. Programs focused on growing the supply of primary-care providers also would be hurt.
Let’s not reverse course. Community Health Centers have delivered high returns on the investment for the past 50 years—improved access, cost savings and more jobs. This is a resource our nation cannot afford to squander.