by Tom Van Coverden
President and CEO of the National Association of Community Health Centers
In an election season, the headlines may lead us to believe that politicians can’t agree on anything. Not so fast. There is one issue on which both Republicans and Democrats can and do agree: the importance of Community Health Centers in our U.S. health care system.
Health centers represent a rare bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill. Why? Health centers save the health system more than $24 billion a year and reduce unnecessary hospitalizations. They treat patients for a fraction of the cost of one emergency room visit. Health centers not only focus on illness prevention, they reach beyond the walls of the exam room to address the factors that actually cause poor health, such as homelessness, lack of nutrition, stress or unemployment. They are innovators in treating chronic conditions that are typically ignored until they become a costly illness. They are trusted providers who are often the “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to confronting emerging challenges, such as the nationwide opioid addiction epidemic, and the Zika virus. Yet, health centers’ ability to protect public health with community-based initiatives such as these requires sustained investment. Despite broad support in Congress, future funding remains uncertain.
Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has pushed for an expansion of health centers, following in the footsteps of former President George W. Bush and President Obama. Their initiatives have doubled the number of health centers, making it possible for them to serve nearly 25 million people. Yet, even such remarkable and historic support for a program is no guarantee for a long-term funding solution.
The good news is that during National Health Center Week 2016 (August 7-13) local, state, and national leaders of all political stripes will visit a health center in their local community and learn more about what they do. During National Health Center Week in Los Angeles County, both House Republican and House Democrats will be visiting health centers in their districts. They will learn how a small pilot program launched as part of the War on Poverty became the largest and most successful system of primary care — generating lower health care costs, healthier people, more home-based care for veterans, more jobs, and fewer dollars spent on “sick care.”
During their visits to these clinics, they will see the importance of continued investment into their community through these health centers. Investment in health centers and primary care is a prescription for good health. It is also good politics in the public interest.