Community health centers can fill care gaps

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Community health centers can help fill gaps in the U.S. healthcare system for relatively little money, researchers said on Tuesday.

Their report, published in the journal Health Affairs, was released just as President Barack Obama proposed increased federal funding to the centers, which are set up to treat people without health insurance, people who live far from hospitals or the poor.

“Community health centers play a vital role in providing primary care and other services to those who cannot afford it or cannot access care. They are an investment that pays off for patients and the nation as a whole,” Anthony Lo Sasso of the University of Illinois at Chicago, who led the study, said in a statement.

Lo Sasso’s team said a $500,000 increase in funding for U.S. centers would provide treatment for an extra 540 uninsured patients.

Obama’s proposed 2011 budget adds $290 million to expand a network of federally funded health centers. There were 1,200 such centers in 2007, the researchers said.

“We’re investing new funds in what I consider to be the backbone of the American health care system, community health centers,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told reporters in a briefing on Monday.

“Thanks to this investment, these neighborhood centers will provide high-quality primary care for 20 million people a year -- 3 million more than were served in 2008.”

Obama’s government gave community centers more than $2 billion under the 2009 stimulus program known officially as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Lo Sasso’s team looked at data on such community centers from 1996 to 2006. They looked at all kinds of centers, whether funded by state or local government or through private foundations.

They found an increase in services across the board, especially in treating mental conditions.

Each additional $1 million of federal grant support led to roughly eight more full-time employees, five of them medical care providers, they found.

Every $1 million in state grants led to close to five full-time employees, while private grant dollars led to nine new employees.

By 2001, such centers were providing $1.25 million worth of free care, they found.

“We show that the investments made in federally qualified health centers during 1996-2006 clearly translated into an increase in services available to patients, including mental health and substance abuse treatment and counseling and staffing,” the researchers wrote.

“Roughly 25 percent of the nation’s 3.4 million low-income uninsured children receive care at such a center.”