This week hundreds of health center leaders from around the country are gathering virtually to assess the health care policy landscape. Usually the NACHC P & I is an in-person conference that takes place in the nation’s capitol. This year, however, COVID had other plans. Still, this socially distanced conference has attracted a slate of dynamic speakers — including recorded remarks by President Biden and a live appearance by Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra, and from former Maryland Lt. Governor and former Chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC), Michael Steele (see media advisory).
The conference also got off to an exciting start with news from HHS in advance of Secretary Becerra’s remarks: nearly $55 million in funds targeted to 29 HRSA-funded health centers to increase health care access and quality for underserved populations through virtual care such as telehealth, remote patient monitoring, digital patient tools, and health information technology platforms.
“Virtual care has been a game-changer for patients, especially during the pandemic,” Becerra noted in a press release. “This funding will help health centers leverage the latest technology and innovations to expand access to quality primary care for underserved communities. Today’s announcement reflects the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to advancing health equity and putting essential health care within reach for all Americans.”
As this CNN story noted today, when there is funding health centers can always do more: “When virtual visits were reimbursed, the number of community [health] centers that offered them increased 132%. Before the pandemic 592 centers offered virtual care, in 2022 it was 1,362, according to Health and Human Services. Virtual visits were up 6,000% during the pandemic, according to HHS.”
The timing of this particular P & I conference is particularly noteworthy. It was exactly one year ago this month that the Biden Administration made health centers a critical players in their national vaccine strategy to ensure equity and protect populations who disproportionately suffered higher rates of infections, hospitalizations and death from the virus. Even though health centers had been vaccinating populations against COVID, directly allocating the vaccines and supplies through the Community Health Center COVID Vaccine Program helped save more lives among the underserved. Health centers have provided 19.2 million COVID-19 shots, with over 2 in 3 shots at a health center administered to people of color. Despite surges of variants, the program is a documented success.
“Even though we’re still experiencing a surge of the Omicron variant in rural Louisiana, in my view the Community Health Center COVID-19 vaccine program has helped us save lives over the course of the past year. We’ve been able to bring vaccines to residents in the rural pockets of our state who otherwise would have fallen through the cracks. COVID-19 may be a global health crisis, but we can’t win without a local approach that reaches everyone,” said Gary Wiltz, MD, a physician and CEO of Teche Action Clinic in Franklin, LA.
There are fewer COVID-19 deaths and infections in areas of the country where a health center is located, according to findings from NACHC and the Morehouse School of Medicine’s National COVID-19 Resiliency Network (NCRN). The joint analysis compared the rate of infection and mortality from COVID in areas with a health center and areas without and found 200 fewer cases of infection and 9 fewer deaths per 100,000 people.