From the North Carolina Community Health Center Association to the front lines of North Carolina’s COVID-19 battle, Benjamin (Ben) Money, NACHC’s new Senior Vice President for Public Health Priorities, has dedicated almost four decades of his professional life to community health centers and local public health. Here he shares his story and vision for his new role at NACHC.
What drew you to your new role at NACHC?
NACHC is the voice of health centers and the communities they serve, with an impressive record of working with Congress to get communities critical services and resources through community health centers. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the essential function of health centers in local and state public health systems. As our nation moves from pandemic response to pandemic recovery, I wanted to join the organization that I see as best prepared to help underserved communities address health disparities.
What do you hope to accomplish in your role at NACHC?
One of my goals is to help NACHC address social drivers of health like food insecurity. Outside the clinic walls, health centers are a valuable means of improving the health of communities where clients live. To this end, I want to strengthen health center boards; they need to co-create solutions with the communities where they live and who they represent. We need to aim for top-quality care that’s delivered in a compassionate and culturally appropriate way.
Overall, it’s important to keep in mind the larger context in which community health centers operate. The economic vestiges of systemic racism continue to place people of color, particularly African Americans and American Indians, at the lower end of the wealth gap. Wealth impacts where you live which in turn directly correlates to your health status and life expectancy.
While the degree of malice openly expressed in the last five years has been historic, I see hopeful signs every day, especially in the optimism of the younger generation of health care workers and social activists. Health care justice came about well before COVID-19 – younger generations have always led the way with this and continued to champion it during the pandemic. I hope to advance their voices and support the development of new leaders.
You worked in a senior public health leadership position during the pandemic. What are the most valuable lessons you learned for community health centers?
Community health centers were quick to respond and pivoted easily – for example, in areas like telehealth and outreach. Unlike other providers, we already had the relationships and trust necessary to effectively reach the most impacted communities. As a result, we could encourage community residents to get tested and later to get vaccinated.
During the pandemic, health centers were the only comprehensive model of integrated health serving everyone, regardless of the ability to pay. They developed new models of care and worked in partnership with grassroots community groups. But for health centers to continue in this important role, particularly in addressing health equity issues, they need sustained financial support and the flexibility to allocate their resources most effectively.
Health centers also need to employ frontline staff with relevant lived experience – people from, and trusted by, the communities they serve. Hire and train them as community health workers to connect the clinic with the neighborhoods served and pay them a living wage. We need to provide resources to enable them to attend nursing programs, medical courses, and other trainings. They’ll come back to their communities better equipped to make a difference on the road to achieving health equity.
How have you seen the field evolve throughout your career?
My first experience with community health centers was in the early ’90s directing the Health Care for the Homeless Program for Wake Health Services (a health center in Raleigh, NC now called Advance Community Health.) Health centers have grown in their sophistication and the comprehensiveness of services. We take a more holistic and integrated approach now that includes behavioral health, dentistry, pharmacies, and a more robust suite of services. Our approach has emphasized primary care in recent years, but COVID has reminded us to return to our original intent which was transforming the health of the entire community.
But we’re definitely facing some obstacles right now. Health centers have put in a lot of hard work over the past 18 months – folks are tired and it’s a long road to full recovery from the pandemic. One of our biggest challenges right now is having enough energy to keep up the work. We need to create the time and space for individuals and organizations to heal and regroup. I’ve been talking to health center directors about bringing in behavioral health providers for their staff because they’ve been through so much. We need to allow them time to breathe and help them process. All the pain, loss, and grief is catching up with people. We must institute care for the caregivers.
What drives your personal commitment to this work?
First of all, as an African American man who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, I have witnessed the impact of health care discrimination on my family, friends and community.
A deep commitment to addressing these inequities drives my life, work and mission. Finally, I am not only a worker and an advocate, but I am also a patient. I have entrusted my health care to community health centers for years. So, you could say – I am all in.