As our nation remains in the grip of the novel coronavirus, never before in our lives have health-care workers been more important. It is a time of unparalleled urgency as we seek the best solutions to ensure that all Americans — especially the medically underserved — have access to affordable high-quality health care.
One of the best proven solutions is our nation’s community health centers. For more than 50 years, health centers have served as a lifeline for our communities — and our nation. Across Texas and our country, they are on the forefront serving those with chronic illnesses and people of all financial means. They are a core part of the health-care system addressing the most urgent public health issues: opioid addiction, HIV/AIDS, maternal mortality, veterans care and now a COVID-19 crisis that appears to be entering a new, even more dangerous phase.
Family Health Center in Waco is one of the 73 Federally Qualified Community Health Centers in Texas, comprising 570 sites spread across 132 counties. FQHCs provide preventive and primary medical care, dental care and behavioral health services to more than 1.5 million Texans. FQHCs boost the economy by keeping the workforce healthy, and they lower costs in the health-care system by helping people manage health conditions that would otherwise force them to seek costlier care in emergency rooms.
As chief medical officer at Family Health Center, I’ve led our clinical team of 80 providers on the front lines against COVID-19. We use our outdoor facilities to evaluate patients with COVID-19 symptoms, testing as many patients as possible to identify disease before it has time to spread and to shine light on the prevalence of the virus in our community.
Family Health Center serves a key community health role highlighted during the pandemic. As a partner with the health systems in our community, the public health district and the medical society, Family Health Center works to provide health education, stem possible viral surges and provide high-quality patient care. Through education, collaboration, prevention and testing, our collective work contributed to comparatively low COVID-19 infections in the area.
Family Health Center CEO Dr. Jackson Griggs says, “We recognized early on that health behavior information related to this virus was not readily available to our patients, so we began to develop two-minute educational videos, which we posted to social-media channels... In tandem with those videos we began regularly providing bilingual Facebook Live events featuring a question-and-answer opportunity with faculty physicians. Throughout the pandemic, our goal has been to positively influence health behaviors and help everyone in our community understand what to do if they have symptoms of COVID-19 — to provide both education and more access to care.”
Dr. Griggs emphasizes the collaborative nature of the work: “It’s the community working together that’s the real solution here. Integration of work between public health, the Federally Qualified Community Health Centers and other health systems has facilitated sharing knowledge and strategies in a way that could not have happened without such partnerships. And so we feel deeply grateful for the spirit of collaboration within the health district and throughout the city and county.”
I’ve been a physician with Family Health Center for 15 years. But in the short space of four months, our world has changed. Family Health Center has kept pace. Following CDC recommendations, we initially rescheduled non-essential office visits. While this decision temporarily decreased patient office visits to 40 percent of usual levels, it avoided crowding in waiting areas and related risk of viral spread. We rapidly deployed telemedicine services for patients and made substantial changes to our workflows — providing patient care in a manner that minimized any risk of exposure to the virus in our clinics.
One systemic way to prevent rampant spread of COVID-19 in our community is to ensure stability of the clinical systems caring for those with symptoms day after day. But paradoxically, community health centers face an uncertain future. Federally Qualified Community Health Centers need secure long-term funding to close the access gap for the medically underserved. If Congress doesn’t pass long-term federal grant funding by Nov. 30, health centers in America will lose up to 70 percent of their federal funding. The results would be catastrophic: In Texas, nearly 500,000 patients could lose access to care.
Now is the time to ensure health centers have a secure path forward to keep us safe and healthy. This is only possible if Congress passes a long-term funding measure to keep our doors open and doctors and nurses serving patients. Texas community health centers are saving lives. Let’s make sure they continue to do so.
Kelley Reynolds, MD, is chief medical officer of Waco’s Family Health Center. Founded in 1969 by a coalition of business, political and medical leaders to address community problems, the center now has 15 clinics spread throughout the McLennan County area.
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