Health is wealth. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the truth of these words, devastating the physical well-being of millions of Americans and crippling our economy.
As individuals, good health allows us to live, work and contribute to our communities. As a nation, our people’s health is critical to maintaining a dynamic and stable economy. That is why we must invest in health care for our national survival and success.
Nearly 1 in 10 Americans rely on community health centers, also known as community clinics, for their primary care needs. These clinics provide quality, comprehensive care to medically underserved communities impacted by poverty and systemic racism — the very same communities hit hardest by the pandemic.
Community clinics serve more than 28 million patients nationwide each year, and 91 percent are low income. In California’s 44th District, situated between the Port of Los Angeles and the Watts Towers in Los Angeles County, almost a quarter of community health center patients have no health insurance, while 73 percent are covered by the state’s Medicaid program, Medi-Cal.
Health centers are a lifeline in our communities. They serve all people who walk through their doors, regardless of ability to pay, insurance or immigration status — and the patient population is growing. Over the next five years, the number of community clinic patients is projected to hit 40 million across the country.
Community health center facilities, however, are aging and already stretched to their limits. Many community clinics currently operate at full capacity and have no more physical room to grow, offer additional programs and services, or house staff.
Community clinics need funding to expand and improve sites that are already at capacity, and to build additional sites. Nearly all community health centers (97 percent) have at least one capital project planned to build, expand or renovate their facilities to take care of patients. They operate on very tight budgets. A quarter of health centers in California have less than 30 days cash on hand.
Without direct federal investment into infrastructure, it will be challenging for community clinics to accommodate new patients and add needed services, including oral health, mental health, substance use disorder and wrap-around services such as transportation, food security and employment programs.
House Democrats are drafting a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package that could be the largest expansion of the social safety net in decades. Under the Energy and Commerce Committee’s markup language, the bill would commit $10 billion for community health center capital funding. Congress should maintain this in the final measure.
This investment would not only improve the health of the patients served by community clinics, it would also help the communities they serve rebound from the economic setbacks of the pandemic. Community health centers created 455,000 full-time jobs and generated more than $63.4 billion in economic activity in 2019. From clerical to clinical, they provide good incomes and job growth opportunities to workers, who in turn generate revenue for their local economies. Further, investments in community clinics expand access to care, creating healthier communities that can work and contribute to our economic recovery.
Congress has a unique opportunity to support recovery in some of the communities hardest hit by the pandemic. If we truly believe in improving our physical and economic health, we must invest in our community health centers.
Rep. Nanette Barragán is a Democrat representing California’s 44th District. She serves on the House Energy and Commerce and Homeland Security committees.
Louise McCarthy is the president and CEO of the Community Clinic Association of Los Angeles County, whose members serve all people, regardless of ability to pay, insurance or immigration status.