By Alexa Spencer | Word In Black

(WIB) – The first community health centers were funded in 1965 to provide healthcare to people in vulnerable communities who couldn’t afford to pay. Nearly 60 years later, 11,000 sites around the United States continue to stand in the gap for communities that need accessible, affordable healthcare.  

For Black folks, who are more likely than white people to be uninsured, community health centers help eliminate some of the systemic barriers to health care — including lack of insurance and transportation. 

We sat down with Susan Burton, National Grassroots Advocacy Director at the National Association of Community Health Centers, to talk more about the role of health centers in our local communities, how we can access care, and even have a say in what services are provided. 

WORD IN BLACK: What are community health centers? And who are they for? 

SUSAN BURTON: Community health centers are for everybody. And I mean they are for everybody. We don’t turn away patients [who don’t have] the ability to pay. Doesn’t matter your insurance status. There are people that are insured. There are people that are uninsured.

The kind of official name in law is a federally qualified health center. And it means that there is a significant amount of funding that comes from the federal government — and that’s what helps them get set up. So there’s a base grant that every health center gets through our federal tax dollars. So, it’s bringing federal tax dollars back to local communities. They have to be in medically underserved communities, which means that there often are not providers in those communities. So, there are a lot of remote locations. There are urban locations — 51% of the board members have to be patients, which means that the patients are informing what kind of care is needed in the community.

The inside of the health center in Memphis, Tenn.

WIB: What type of care can a person expect to receive at a community health center? 

SB: Health centers are known for preventative care…I think that one of the first doctors at health centers was writing prescriptions for fruits and vegetables because they realized that one of the issues that was impacting the patient’s health was not accessing healthy food

So primary care is part of that, but there are a lot of health centers that have builtin behavioral health. Because again, when the patients define it, they begin saying, “well, wait a minute, it’s great that we’re getting physicals or we’ve got access to make sure we stay healthy, but what happens when we find someone who’s got a substance use disorder or mental health challenge.”

There are some health centers that serve people speaking many, many different languages. And so there are translation services available. So when you walk into a health center, there’s pretty much a guarantee that you’re going to be served, and the things that you need to be healthy are going to be there.

WIB: You mentioned that community health centers don’t turn anyone away, regardless of their ability to pay. Are services free, or can patients expect a bill later on? 

SB: There’s a sliding scale…There are a couple of things. One is that there’s something called enabling services, which are a whole list of services that are going to wrap around primary care that you might need. 

But if someone’s uninsured, they’re going to look to see if they qualify for Medicaid. So, there are people that do outreach and enrollment, because we know that there are a lot of people that are eligible for Medicaid that don’t either know about it, or have a stigma attached to it, or just haven’t gotten enrolled.

WIB: While cost is one barrier to accessing healthcare, there are others, such as transportation. Can you give an example of how community health centers are working to eliminate barriers other than coverage? 

Memphis Health Center, Inc. was opened in 1970.

SB: There’s a community in Tennessee that has no public transportation. So, one of the services they offer is transportation to get their patients to the site. During COVID, we saw — and this was happening before — that there are a lot of community centers that have mobile units that will go to different locations.

There’s a health center that is partnering with the VFWs to make sure that the veterans in their community have access to care. So they’re taking their mobile unit to the parking lot. 

To find out if there’s a community health center near you, visit www.findahealthcenter.hrsa.gov.