The good work of health clinics

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/26/health/policy/26clinics.html?partner=permalink&exprod=permalink

This Dec. 25 article from the New York Times  provides a really interesting look at the success, challenges, and very real importance of community health clinics in the United States.  According to the article’s author, Kevin Sack,

Although the number of uninsured and the cost of coverage have ballooned under his watch, President Bush leaves office with a health care legacy in bricks and mortar: he has doubled federal financing for community health centers, enabling the creation or expansion of 1,297 clinics in medically underserved areas.

For those in poor urban neighborhoods and isolated rural areas, including Indian reservations, the clinics are often the only dependable providers of basic services like prenatal care, childhood immunizations, asthma treatments, cancer screenings and tests for sexually transmitted diseases.

As a crucial component of the health safety net, they are lauded as a cost-effective alternative to hospital emergency rooms, where the uninsured and underinsured often seek care.

These clinics are essential to many of the nations poor and lower-class citizens, as well as many recent immigrants.  Their role is growing as the economy worsens: when people lose employer-sponsored health insurance after being laid off, they often turn to inexpensive clinics to stay well.

While President Bush isn’t exactly known for improving the health and well-being for the nation’s poor, he has done much to expand the reach of community health clinics.  According to the article, before he came president,

Mr. Bush came to admire the missionary zeal and cost-efficiency of the not-for-profit community health centers, which qualify for federal operating grants by being located in designated underserved areas and treating patients regardless of their ability to pay. […]

In Mr. Bush’s first year in office, he proposed to open or expand 1,200 clinics over five years (mission accomplished) and to double the number of patients served (the increase has ended up closer to 60 percent). With the health centers now serving more than 16 million patients at 7,354 sites, the expansion has been the largest since the program’s origins in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty, federal officials said.

Federal funding for clinics has substantial bi-partisan support, and the program has been highly praised by incoming Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Daschle.  A relatively low-cost and highly efficient program, health clinic expension is seen as a possible stop-gap measure to improve health coverage in the US if president-elect Obama’s more far-reaching health reforms stall.  Not only do community health clinics provide accessible and affordable primary care to many uninsured people, they also save substantial sums of money by reducing the number of patients who go to Emergency Rooms because they have no other options.

Despite the widespread agreement on their benefits, community health clinics continue to face serious challenges.  They struggle for adequate funding from the government and other sources, and they feel the heavy impact of America’s shortage of primary care physicians.  The NYT article discusses some of the incentives offered to med students in an attempt to draw them into clinic work.

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~ by h.e.g. on December 26, 2008.

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