In lots of places across the United States, getting regular healthcare can be tough. Whether that’s due to time, transportation or money, it can be a real challenge seeing doctors when there’s a gap between the need and the opportunity. Community health centers work to fill this gap.
People with access to a community health center can typically see doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers. And getting care doesn’t depend on whether someone can foot the bill.
That’s because everyone is welcome at a community health center.
About Community Health Centers
The mission of a community health center is to provide convenient and affordable primary healthcare services. Usually found in medically underserved communities, community health centers expand healthcare access. That way, more people can get the services they need.
Health centers vary in what they do, but many offer things like:
- Checkups, shots or screenings
- Teeth cleanings
- Mental health counseling
- Drug recovery programs
You might even have your prescriptions filled at a local health center.
Getting good care isn’t a matter of having the most money, either. Typically, these centers provide services for everyone. Rates may be based on a sliding scale. And if your income is low, you may not pay anything at all. Health centers also tend to accept Medicare and Medicaid. They may even take your private insurance plan, too.
Most community health centers get federal funding to some degree. This is done through the Health Center Program, a program run by the U.S. Health Services and Resource Administration (HRSA).
Federal grant money helps centers reach vulnerable populations as well. That includes migratory farm workers, veterans and people living in poverty.
Health Centers by the Numbers
The first health centers opened their doors in 1965. Today, more than 1,400 organizations are involved, with around 13,000 sites where patients can go for care.
The reach of health centers has grown in recent years, too. From 2000 to 2019, the number of people using community health centers jumped 211%. Today, health centers in America serve almost 30 million patients across all 50 states, D.C. and the U.S. territories.
Around 1 out of every 11 people in the U.S. gets services from a health center that gets federal funds. That’s around 9% of the population.
Kids, in particular, benefit from these centers. Federally funded centers serve about an eighth of American kids. Many children get care at school-based sites.
Community health centers often help people who live in poverty as well. Around a third of people living in poverty use health centers. And more than 1.4 million homeless people get care there each year.
Health centers are also good for veterans. Nearly 400,000 veterans visit these facilities every year.
Benefits of Community Health Centers
There are plenty of benefits to a community health center. For starters, they provide essential care to populations that might otherwise not receive it. And in underserved communities or for people who can’t afford the cost of private health insurance, community health centers may be the only source of primary medical care.
These centers offer medical, personal and financial benefits to the communities they service.
Community health centers offer coordinated services. That means different care providers, such as primary physicians and mental health therapists, work together to come up with the best plans for their patients.
Because services are affordable, more people have better access to wellness care. As a health center patient, you may be less likely to put off an annual checkup. You’re also more likely to catch problems before they become serious.
Access to regular health services means that people are less likely to end up in the emergency room, especially for things that can be treated early. For example, the chance of having a baby with a low birth weight goes down.
Going to a community health center doesn’t mean that you’ll get second-rate treatment, either. Studies show that centers meet or exceed care standards. Compared to other healthcare providers, they get comparable scores — or better ones — on over 90% of quality measures.
Most community health centers are considered Patient-Centered Medical Homes (PCMH). They focus on care for the whole person, both physical and mental. And statistics show that PCMHs improve patient outcomes.
Consider this: across the country, 59% of diabetes patients have their blood sugar under control. PCMH patients do better. Around 68% of these patients keep their blood sugar in check.
It’s a similar story for people with high blood pressure. In general, 59% of hypertension patients keep their blood pressure down. For people who visit PCMHs, that figure jumps to 65%.
Community health centers are designed with people in mind. They serve large swaths of the community. But they still treat people as individuals.
Sometimes, people don’t seek care because they don’t speak English well. Community health centers typically try to break down that barrier. They also attempt to reach across cultural divides. That way, they can serve people from many different backgrounds.
Community health centers are also patient-directed. That means that people have a say in their care. The various providers in the health system may work together, but they don’t ignore the patient’s preferences. Rather, they value the patient’s perspective.
Community health centers make financial sense. Patients benefit, of course. Fees are based on your ability to pay. You won’t be turned away just because you don’t have money.
But the general public benefits, too. By some estimates, health centers lead to about $24 billion in savings for the healthcare system each year. And healthcare spending is 24% lower for center patients than it is for others.
People who put off preventive care may be more likely to develop chronic conditions. They may go to the ER instead of a more affordable clinic because they don’t have a primary care doctor.
Those sorts of things have consequences for everyone. They may lead to higher health insurance premiums. They also put a greater demand on taxpayers.
Community health center advocates say that it makes more sense to invest in accessible primary care.
Usually, the sooner you can spot and treat a condition, the better. The idea behind more readily available (and affordable) primary care is that it can help lower costs for pricier treatments later.
Look-alike Health Centers
Not all community health centers receive federal funding. The ones that don’t are known as look-alikes.
That might sound like a negative nickname, but it’s not. Look-alikes have to provide quality services. In fact, to be considered a look-alike, a center has to meet all the same standards as an HRSA-funded center.
The difference is that look-alikes aren’t awarded federal funds. They are eligible for other benefits, though.
Look-alikes can be reimbursed through Medicare and Medicaid. They can take part in the Vaccines for Children program. Also, their patients may receive prescription discounts.
Community Health Centers in Your Neighborhood
HRSA maintains a database of community health centers that receive federal funding. To locate your nearest health center, enter your zip code. You can choose a search radius as small as 5 miles or as wide as 250 miles.
This interactive map doesn’t provide data on look-alike centers. Search for “community health center” and the name of your town may turn up additional results. Your local health department may be able to point you in the direction of a center as well.
If you need medical care and don’t have many options, consider looking for a community health center in your area. These centers are staffed by real medical providers who take a person-based approach to healthcare. You may find the help you need, no matter your ability to pay.