Barack Obama

Obama pushes centers as one focus of health reform

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama has been vague about details of his healthcare reform efforts, but he provided a hint on Monday of one direction he could take -- community health centers.

As he announced the nominations of his two top health executives, Obama highlighted the allocation of $155 million to 126 community health centers as part of the $787 billion economic stimulus package.

“These health centers will expand access to care by helping people in need -- many with no health insurance -- obtain access to comprehensive primary and preventive health care services,” Obama told a news conference.

“That helps relieve the burden on emergency rooms across the country, which have become primary care clinics for too many who lack coverage -- often at taxpayer expense.”

The Health and Human Services Department said the money would create 5,500 new jobs and help provide health care to an estimated 750,000 low-income Americans.

Gary Pickens, chief research officer for the Healthcare business of Thomson Reuters, a division of Thomson Reuters Corp, agreed the centers relieve overburdened hospitals.

“Hospitals currently have overcrowded emergency departments and would probably prefer to see care given in more appropriate settings for conditions that don’t require hospitalization,” Pickens said in a telephone interview.

One of the repeated criticisms of the U.S. healthcare system is that patients are often sent to emergency departments for routine care if, for instance, their physician’s office is closed or if they do not have health insurance.

Costs in emergency rooms are much higher than in a clinic, and politicians who oppose any kind of a move toward nationalized healthcare support the idea of using retail and community clinics to fill in some of the gaps.

“Over the next two years, a total of $2 billion in Recovery Act funding will be invested in Community Health Centers to support renovations and repairs, investments in health information technology, and critically needed health care services,” HHS said in a statement.

It said one out of 19 American uses federal government funded health clinic for primary healthcare -- and such clinics treated 16 million people in 2008, including dental and mental health care.

“Nearly forty percent of patients treated have no health insurance and one-third are children,” HHS said.

Obama named Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius to head HHS on Monday and former Clinton Medicare official Nancy DeParle as the head of a new White House office of health reform. He plans a healthcare summit of lawmakers, lobbyists and industry on Thursday.

Reporting by Maggie Fox, editing by Jackie Frank