Aug 13, 2020
The impact of COVID-19 on Community Health Centers

By Tom Van Coverden, CEO and President of the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC); and Thomas Tighe, CEO of Direct Relief

As COVID-19 continues to stress hospitals and emergency rooms in cities throughout the United States, our nation’s community health centers have again stepped up, as they always do, to find innovative ways to care for our nation’s most vulnerable patients.

Community health centers are the largest primary care system in the United States, serving nearly 30 million people. They are required by law, and by mission, to serve ALL, regardless of ability to pay – and they never turn a patient away – ever. More than 1,400 non-profit community health centers operate from 14,000 locations nationwide and are located in high-need areas – both rural and suburban. By design, the centers are governed by a board of directors which is comprised of at least 51% patients – helping to ensure those who are being served are truly represented. The patients they serve are likely disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. They are the hard-working people whom our country depends on to pick our food, work in our processing plants and assembly lines, deliver our packages, staff our grocery stores and restaurants, and clean our hospitals:

  • Their patients often include veterans, agricultural workers and people who are homeless;
  • They serve 1 in 3 people living in poverty; and 1 in 9 U.S. children
  • Two-thirds of their patients are members of racial and ethnic minorities;
  • And, like the rest of the United States, their fastest growing group of patients are seniors age 65 or older.

Community health centers also generate $24 billion in savings for the healthcare system, annually. They are a sound public investment producing quality health care, jobs and economic activity in Iocal communities.

Understanding the significant toll COVID-19 is taking on community health centers
As soon as COVID-19 was identified in the U.S., our health centers quickly pivoted to offer telehealth and began to set up thousands of testing sites across the country. Since April, community health centers have conducted COVID-19 testing on more than 2.4 million people. About 14% of those tests are positive – far higher than the national average. But 14% is not a surprise – many of the patients served by health centers are the essential workers who don’t have the luxury of working from home or taking paid leave.

Health centers are critical to keeping non-emergency cases out of the overburdened hospitals and maintaining care for patients with chronic conditions and behavioral health needs. 

However, the reality is that the pandemic is taking a huge financial toll on our nation’s health centers. Collectively, they need at least $7.6 billion in emergency supplemental funding to recover revenue losses and keep their doors open. Congress has helped with funding for testing and PPE and payroll protection loans for many of our centers, but many are still at risk of closing.

Along with their families, the 236,000 people who serve as dedicated health center staff deserve our deep gratitude. On the frontlines of the COVID-19 response, they have had to deal with personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing shortages, terrified patients, and most heartbreaking – the worry of bringing the virus home to their families. Over 11,000 staff have tested positive for the virus.

Community health centers’ greatest need: stable, long-term funding
It is against this backdrop that this week –  National Health Center week – we take the opportunity to thank, and extend our deep gratitude, to our nation’s health centers, for the invaluable, life-saving care they deliver to our most vulnerable patients.

And there’s also perhaps no more opportune time to reinforce that what health centers need now, more than ever, is stable, long-term funding. Unfortunately, the federal funding is not enough to keep pace for the overwhelming primary health care needs across the nation. Philanthropic investments from the private sector are more important than ever to ensure our community health centers remain a vital component of the healthcare landscape in the United States.

That’s why we are grateful when companies like BD invest in initiatives like BD Helping Build Healthy Communities. Just this week, BD and the BD Foundation committed an additional $7.8 million in this initiative over the next three years. Dollars that Direct Relief and the National Association of Community Health Centers will use to issue financial awards to help health centers expand their innovative approaches to care to reach more patients. By the year 2022, BD and the BD Foundation will have invested $22.6 million in this initiative. However – the reality is that health centers need many more private investments like these, as they continue to serve an increasing number of patients, with less consistent and sustainable funding at the federal level.

We Can Help Community Health Centers Now
If you’re concerned about lack of affordable and accessible health care in the United States – particularly in vulnerable communities – then we encourage you to consider taking steps to move the needle to support health centers.

  • Help through philanthropy:  Individuals and companies can make philanthropic investments directly in community health centers – you can find a nationwide list at www.FindaHealthCenter.hrsa.gov.  You can also learn more about health centers by visiting the National Association of Community Health Center’s website and more about Direct Relief’s work in supporting community health by visiting www.directrelief.org
  • Support the advocacy efforts of NACHC: Community health centers need a more consistent, reliable stream of federal funding, particularly as COVID-19 stresses our nation’s hospital systems and the number of people who are unemployed and uninsured rises. Consider contacting your elected representatives in Congress – at https://www.hcadvocacy.org/takeaction/ – to encourage them to pass emergency and long-term funding to stabilize and ensure the survival of these essential community assets.

If there’s one truth in which we’re certain, it’s that investments in health centers are dollars well spent. We’re grateful to companies like BD, that have recognized the incomparable return on philanthropic investment that our nation’s health centers deliver – and we are confident that you won’t find a better place to make an impactful investment in health.