The Private Sector and the Economic Stimulus Package: Improving Our Nation's Community Health Centers

The Private Sector and the Economic Stimulus Package: Improving Our Nation's Community Health Centers

The inclusion in the recently enacted economic stimulus package of $2 billion to support and expand the work of the nation's more than 1,200 community health centers indicates the increasingly broad support that these centers now enjoy as well as their important role as essential providers of high-quality, cost-effective health care services to 18 million people in need.

Given the challenges associated with the current economic environment, the work of community health centers is more important than ever. Indeed, the private sector has a unique opportunity to step up and support efforts to maximize the use of these taxpayer dollars and ensure that these vital centers can fully realize their purpose.

In a sense, community health centers are one-stop healthcare shops that provide comprehensive health and related services in urban and rural communities across the nation. Moreover, their governing boards must be comprised of a majority of local community representatives. Given their mission, clientele, settings, and governance, it is obvious that community health center leaders regularly confront socioeconomic and management challenges, often with inadequate support.

Yet, despite these challenges, surveys reveal that community health centers expand access to quality health care while reducing the number of avoidable emergency room visits and hospital admissions. According to independent research, community health centers save the nation $10 billion a year.

United Health Foundation has committed $23 million over the past six years to support the transition of five community health centers in underserved areas of Washington, D.C., Miami, New York City, and New Orleans into model "Centers of Excellence." A peer-reviewed, published analysis resulting from a study of three of these centers found that community health centers can and do provide care that, when evaluated using industry-standard criteria, equals or exceeds that delivered in the private sector. Moreover, this analysis did not adjust for the daunting socioeconomic challenges faced by those centers.

The stimulus package language requires that the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) develop a plan for spending the new funds within ninety days before the end of this month. The dollars must be distributed by expanding infrastructure, operations, health information technology (HIT), and other areas.

Many centers will require support if they are to do this effectively and efficiently. Thankfully, there is a mechanism already in place to help. Capital Link, a national nonprofit consulting organization that has provided advisory services to support the planning and financing of capital projects for community health centers since 1994, is expanding its services.

We at United Health Foundation have recently awarded a supplemental grant to Capital Link to support its work and help ensure that community health centers access and use the $1.5 billion in stimulus funds earmarked for capital development in the most cost-efficient manner. Capital Link will use the grant to provide approximately five hundred hours of technical assistance in 2009 to advise community health centers through the capital development process, including training, education and pre-development planning for building projects and equipment purchases.

In addition, we are aware that private sector corporations possess extensive real estate, accounting, capital planning, management and information technology expertise. There is no more compelling, or timely, opportunity for companies to express their social responsibility agenda than by "loaning" talent to assist their local community health centers in this effort. United Health Foundation is working with Capital Link to connect volunteer resources from UnitedHealth Group and other Fortune 500 companies with community health centers in need of capital development support.

To encourage investment and provide a mechanism to support private-sector partnerships with community health centers, we have also created a Web site, www.facesofhopecampaign.org. By design, it shows the faces of the dedicated workers, clients, and supporters of the community health centers that give us so much reason to hope for optimal health for all Americans. We encourage everyone to visit the site and arrange a tour of a community health center near you.

This is a time for action and, thankfully, there has never been a better time to leverage resources to make a meaningful difference. We hope you'll answer that call. After all, when it comes to health, we're all in this together.

Dr. Reed Tuckson, a board member of the United Health Foundation, is the executive vice president and chief of medical affairs at UnitedHealth Group.