From workforce shortages to a drop-off in patients following the pandemic, community health centers are increasingly under pressure
Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), a member of the Senate Health Committee, spoke about the value of Community Health Centers and questioned health care leaders on ways to increase Americans’ access to primary care. In Maine, Community Health Centers play a vital role in filling this need by providing services to nearly 210,000 patients, about 16 percent of the state’s population. More than 60 percent of patients are low-income, and about 20 percent are over the age of 70. Challenges caused by the pandemic, however, have jeopardized these centers’ ability to provide essential care.
“My largest community health center, the Penobscot Community Health Care, has seen a real drop-off in patients coming back after the pandemic,” said Senator Collins. “Is that unique to my state, or have you experienced that?”
“No, I don't think so. I think people's patterns of engagement with the health care system changed off of COVID,” responded Ben Harvey, Indiana Primary Health Care Association Chief Executive Officer. “I think we've seen with health centers in Indiana some recovery from that, but it has to be really intentional, intensive work, and you have to develop new service lines, things like telemedicine, to reach patients from home to provide care in more convenient ways. So, no, I don't think it's unique, but I do think that there's an that's an additional burden on health centers now.”
“What I'm hearing now from our Maine health centers is that they fear that a perfect storm is brewing. They're experiencing unprecedented turnover and staff shortages. They feel they're facing threats to the critical 340B drug pricing program. And they're having difficulty in recovering from the pandemic because patients are being slow to return,” said Senator Collins. “Given the current workforce crisis and the issues that I've mentioned, are community health care centers able to meet the workforce needs if we were to dramatically expand funding for them and scale that up rapidly? Are we going to end up with clinics that have more money but simply don't have the staff to serve?”
“It's a fair question,” Mr. Harvey replied. “I appreciate that question. I think we've got a long history here of saying if federal funding is increased, you will see concomitant increases in the work that health centers do and the patients that they see in the service sites that they have, and the services they offer. So, no, I don't think the funding would be lost.”
“I agree that if we have the adequate funding to continue expanding the services that we provide, we have always stepped up to the plate stood in the gap, we've always done it,” added Sue Veer, Carolina Health Centers President and Chief Executive Officer. “Now, it's a pipeline. And so, if we, if people enter the pipeline, now, it may be months, if not years before we have them in place, but as we develop, we will get there.”
Senator Collins also noted that workforce shortages continue to plague rural states like Maine where attracting and retaining health care professionals can be difficult. To address this challenge, she emphasized the need for expanded opportunities for training at local community health centers:
“I think that training opportunities at community health centers are absolutely essential, as we heard from the President of the University of New England,” Senator Collins remarked. “The more we can do those connections, the more likely the health care professional is to stay in a rural area and practice there.”
Nearly 30 million Americans – including almost 400,000 veterans – receive high quality primary health care at community health centers in 14,000 neighborhoods throughout the United States.