This past August, the United States officially marked the 50th anniversary of the creation of the nation’s first two community health centers with National Health Center Week. Health centers, however, might not have achieved their prominent status in providing healthcare to America’s most vulnerable communities if not for the efforts of the late Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.
(Image Source: Boston Globe)
In 1966, years before the scandals that engulfed his personal and political life, Senator Kennedy toured the new Columbia Point Health Center that served a low-income section of the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston. He saw firsthand the importance of the center’s work and from that visit, he had found what would become his legislative calling – improving access to healthcare for all Americans. By the end of the year, he had secured more than $50 million of federal funding for the development of 30 new centers across the country.
Fifty years on, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration, more than 1,300 community health centers operate approximately 9,000 service sites, providing both primary and preventative care to nearly 23 million patients from medically underserved and vulnerable populations across the United States. Despite being largely dependent on grant funding, health centers manage to save the United States’ healthcare system an estimated $24 billion annually.
Community health centers are on the front lines of healthcare, working to overcome barriers (geography, poverty, language and culture) that keep people in need from receiving essential care. Health centers have enjoyed tremendous success in treating chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension; screening women for breast and cervical cancers; lowering the rate of infant low birth weight; and reducing mortality rates among patients aged 50 and over.
Over the past five years, greater emphasis has been placed on community health centers through provisions in the Affordable Care Act. The passage of the five-year $11 billion Health Center Fund in 2010 further spurred the creation of new centers, sites, and programs and the hiring and training of additional staff. Furthermore, the “funding cliff” presented by the Health Care Fund’s horizon in 2015 was averted in the 2016 federal budget. A total of $5.1 billion has been appropriated in support of the Health Care Program for the current fiscal year.
One of Senator Kennedy’s enduring and positive legacies was his support of the community health center model. Today, more systems such as the Valley View Health Centers in Southern Ohio continue to expand, adding locations and services along the continuum of preventative and primary care for the area’s most vulnerable populations. At Valley View, in addition to traditional healthcare services, they now offer programs for lower cost medications, smoking cessation, and assistance in applying for Medicaid or enrolling in insurance.
While it is clear that substantial progress has been made over these last 50 years, improvement is still necessary. New sites are desperately needed in both rural and urban areas across the country and many millions of Americans still lack access to health care. And more funding is desperately needed for mental health treatment programs and the opioid addiction crisis. Hopefully, the legacy of leadership that Ted Kennedy once showed with the expansion of community health centers will continue to guide those entrusted with the nation’s laws and policy making.