As the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly spreads throughout the U.S., the medical community wants to ensure all Americans have access to necessary treatment. Community Health Centers are playing a vital role in this medical crisis because they provide quality health care in areas that lack adequate medical services and ensure all patients have access to health care regardless of their insurance coverage or ability to pay. Because of the COVID-19 crisis, however, health centers throughout the country are laying off employees and closing primary care sites because of a shortage of operational funds.

I work for PrimaryPlus, a network of seven community health centers that serve patients in northeastern Kentucky and southern Ohio, and our providers deliver quality primary care. Our case managers and referral clerks proactively reach out to patients to get updates on their conditions, make appointments with specialists, and even arrange transportation for patients without access to cars in areas with inadequate public transportation. We provide remote patient monitoring services for patients with prevalent disease states like diabetes, high blood pressure, and lung diseases such as COPD and asthma. Our pharmacists are a part of our medical team and aid in determining the best treatments for patients. We even go one step further by reducing patient adherence barriers to their medication, whether it be cost, transportation, administration technique, or disease state education. These extra services are valuable for patient care, but many are not billable. Federal funding allows us to provide these services at a financial loss without compromising quality of care or passing the costs on to patients.

The COVID-19 crisis has made our funding unstable. Community health centers received some emergency funding in the last stimulus bill, but it wasn’t nearly enough, and the situation could become worse if Congress doesn’t pass a long-term mandatory funding grant by November 30. In order to stabilize funding for community health centers so that they can look after the most underserved communities, we need lawmakers to pass additional emergency funding and mandatory long-term funding now.

What would losing long-term funding for community health centers mean for us locally? If we had to close some of our health centers, access to basic health care would significantly decrease in many counties. For example, our OB/GYN providers in Maysville are the only ones in Mason County and all bordering counties. If that health center closed, patients in those counties would need to drive one to two hours to Lexington or Cincinnati for prenatal care. Other preventive health care, including annual health and wellness check ups, routine cancer screenings, vaccines, and hepatitis testing, would essentially cease in communities without access to health centers.

Even if all of our health centers stayed open, we would need to significantly reduce vital services that help maintain patients’ long-term wellbeing. The case management and personal patient care that we cannot bill for would go away, leaving thousands without the assistance they need to stay healthy.

Patients without access to health care options to manage chronic conditions often end up at the ER when their symptoms become severe. Using hospitals to treat chronic conditions is a financial burden on the state, and increasingly it will become a health risk for patients throughout our region. That’s why Congress’ investment in community health centers also makes financial sense: it saves the federal health care system $24 billion annually, and every $1 of federal funds generates an average of $5.73 of savings in local communities.

Healthy populations are resilient populations. Congress must pass additional emergency and long-term funding for community health centers so that we can continue to provide underserved communities with high-quality preventative health care and prepare for increasing numbers of COVID-19 patients. The medical crisis is here, and we need Congress to act now.

BLAIR LYKINS, PharmD, MBA, CDE is Director of Pharmacy Services at PrimaryPlus.

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