The Daily Planet

A dental hygienist provided care to a patient at the Daily Planet clinic in Richmond. Community health care centers across the commonwealth are continuing to provide front-line care amid PPE and supply shortages, as well as rising expenses.

From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, unsung heroes at community health centers have tirelessly worked to protect their patients and their communities.

Located in medically underserved areas such as rural towns or inner-city neighborhoods, these community health centers, also known as federally qualified health centers (FQHCs), provide primary health care services to everyone in their communities, regardless of an individual’s ability to pay or insurance status. In addition to medical services, some provide dental, behavioral health, substance abuse, pharmaceutical and preventative health care services.

These community health centers, which operate more than 150 sites across the commonwealth, serve more than 368,000 Virginians each year. And while few might have heard of community health centers, as they generally do not market their services in a highly visible way, the people in the communities they serve know them well. Many have relied on their services, often as the only provider of primary health care in their area, for 50 years in Virginia.

Community health centers also serve predominantly African American and Latino communities, providing culturally sensitive and appropriate care. The first health center in Virginia was founded to bring primary health care services to a rural African American community in 1970. Unfortunately, these very communities also have been among the hardest hit by the ongoing pandemic.

Since the onset of the crisis, community health centers have been on the front lines helping those in need. They have implemented telehealth services to assist their patients, allowing them to virtually meet with their providers rather than risk community exposure. And they began providing COVID-19 testing when others were not yet able. That testing continues today, with more than 50 sites offering the service and more preparing to expand testing capabilities in their communities.

However, the crisis also has taken a heavy toll on community health centers and those who work within them. With a lack of proper protective gear and supplies, and at a great personal risk to themselves and their families, staff have shown up every day to support those in their communities. Some have fallen ill due to exposure. A few even have lost their lives.

Some community health centers have had to close sites or curtail their services in certain areas. Though these sites slowly are reopening today, they, like the rest of our commonwealth, never will return to the previous normal.

The financial toll on community health centers also has been extensive. Many are facing significant revenue shortfalls. Financial forecasts conducted for our centers by a national accounting firm indicate that revenues severely will be impacted over the next year and expenses significantly will increase. It is estimated that community health centers in Virginia will have a revenue shortfall of more than $66 million, in addition to millions more in increased expenses due to the COVID-19 crisis.

This is the best-case scenario. If the pending second wave significantly impacts Virginia’s underserved communities, the effect could be three times worse. Virginia cannot afford to lose such a critical part of its health safety net.

Gov. Ralph Northam and the General Assembly need to provide significant funding to help our health centers and other health safety net providers in the commonwealth. Without immediate financial assistance, more sites might close and additional services might be cut.

Not only in times of crisis do community health centers provide their communities with invaluable care. They routinely offer primary care services at lower costs than other providers, and help prevent unnecessary hospitalizations and emergency room visits by bringing services to communities that need them the most. These centers have provided countless assistance to those managing chronic conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure and heart disease. These interventions often have saved lives.

No doubt, as they have for more than 50 years, community health centers will continue to lead the way in providing innovative methods and technologies to meet the needs in their communities. They always have had to innovate, and that experience now is helping them to adjust and meet the current and future needs of their patients and their communities.

However, to ensure the future of our health centers and to support the health care heroes within them, Virginia must act quickly. Additional funding for community health centers will help reduce the financial impact of the current crisis, but only if it is significant and arrives soon. Join me in asking the members of the General Assembly to fund our community health centers.

R. Neal Graham is CEO of the Virginia Community Healthcare Association. Contact him at: info@vacommunityhealth.org

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