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Community health centers provide care for the marginalized

As our nation struggles to align health care needs with political designs, it is critical that we remember the necessity of open, welcoming care for all communities, especially those who have been historically marginalized and continue to face barriers to a healthy life.

Community health centers provide essential health care to more than 24 million people in rural and urban communities, the majority of whom struggle with access to health care. One in every 13 Americans depends on community health center services from approximately 1,400 sister organizations nationwide.

Maryland’s Health Centers serve over 300,000 patients at 17 organizations with about 125 care delivery sites across the state. Maryland Health Centers are present in Baltimore City and almost every Maryland county. Maryland health centers provide high quality, comprehensive care to some of the most vulnerable populations in our state.

It would be an understatement to say the work community health centers do in Baltimore is vital. In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, the city’s six Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) served a total of 145,964 patients. Of those patients, an average of 98.5 percent live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

Serving some of Baltimore’s most in-need patients gives community health centers a distinct advantage over most health institutions. We are the first responders, and we can identify and address both physical and mental health disparities. Good mental health is an important part of overall physical health, as suicide is now ranked among the top 10 causes of death. The addition of behavioral health services to our physical health services allows us to administer holistic health to the person, family and community.

Many of us are concerned about what’s ahead for our nation’s health care. This question concerns not just the patients who rely on our care, but each of us who are a part of the community health center system and who care about the stability, safety and wellness of our country.

Our centers have opened our doors to all, saved countless lives, reduced and prevented chronic diseases, provided affordable options for care other than costly hospital emergency rooms, innovated and improved the treatment of HIV and other chronic diseases, and been on the front lines for national health crises, including the opioid epidemic. Ultimately, as community health centers we truly serve our intended purpose: providing a safety net to keep our communities healthier and more productive by delivering integrated medical and social services to our most vulnerable neighbors, friends, and family.

Health centers also contribute significant cost savings for the American taxpayer, saving an average of $2,371, or 24 percent, in total spending per Medicaid patient when compared to other providers, according a recent study. But health centers are much more than just another health care program. They are problem-solvers that look beyond medical charts not only to prevent illness but also address the factors that actually cause poor health, such as homelessness, lack of nutrition, stress or unemployment.

The expansion of Medicaid has strengthened our organizations, allowing us to better serve our city’s most vulnerable residents. We are relieved that Congress neither reversed these gains, nor fundamentally changed our nation’s 52-year commitment to Medicaid and those it serves. We will continue to advocate for the preservation of Medicaid and the strengthening of health centers who rely on the program.

FQHCs and community health centers have existed, grown and remained an important facet of American life through both Republican- and Democrat-majority times, through financial boons and crises, and through times of civil and political uncertainty. Today is no different.

By working as a team with diverse community partners, we can continue toward a united country in which everyone has access to the fundamental resources that all humans deserve. Now is the time to safeguard our team’s strength by ensuring all have access to quality health care.

Judy Lapinski (jlapinski@machc.com) is interim CEO of Mid-Atlantic Association of Community Health Centers.

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