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Community Health Centers Can Fill Gaping Primary Care Gap, Report Says

Analysis  |  By Christopher Cheney  
   March 06, 2023

Mainly due to a shortage of primary care providers, millions of Americans do not have access to a usual source of primary care.

With more funding, Federally Qualified Health Centers would be well-suited to filling a gaping primary care gap, according to a recent report from the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC).

More than 100 million Americans do not have access to primary care, mainly due to a shortage of primary care providers in their community, the report says. The report deems these Americans as medically disenfranchised.

Federally Qualified Health Centers, also known as Community Health Centers, have a vital role to play in serving this medically disenfranchised population, Rachel Gonzales-Hanson, interim president and CEO of NACHC, said in a prepared statement. "The primary care gap is deepening in underserved communities across our nation, and Community Health Centers are vital to filling in those gaps by providing critical routine healthcare services. The COVID-19 pandemic only illuminated existing healthcare inequalities in the most vulnerable areas of our nation, making it crystal clear the important role of health centers."

The NACHC report highlights a national crisis, she said. "The Closing the Primary Care Gap report illustrates an unfortunate picture of medically underserved Americans with a disproportionately higher risk of harm from preventable diseases—and one-quarter of them are children. Expanding access to primary healthcare must be a national priority."

In addition to the findings that 100 million Americans do not have access to primary care and one-quarter of them are children, the report has several key findings:

  • Only 11% of the medically disenfranchised population is uninsured, which indicates that lacking access to primary care is not mainly related to insurance.
     
  • More than half of the medically disenfranchised population has an income below 200% of the Federal Poverty Level. These people may not be able to afford traveling long distances to access care.
     
  • Without community health centers, 15 million more people would likely not have access to primary care.
     
  • The number of medically disenfranchised people has doubled since 2014.

Investments are needed to reduce the medically disenfranchised population, the report says. "Access to primary care in medically disenfranchised communities can be improved through strategic investments, such as incentives for primary care practitioners to train and work in medically underserved communities and additional funding for Community Health Centers to expand their network of providers."

Addressing the shortage of primary care providers is crucial, the report says. "Gaps in primary care persist due to a nationwide primary care provider shortage that is driven by increased medical specialization and an uneven distribution of providers. Clinical trainees are pursuing increased specialization, which has led to a decline in the proportion of medical students and residents entering primary care. … Both primary care providers and specialists are more concentrated in highly populated urban areas that are home to higher-income, majority-insured populations. This pattern leaves fewer providers to care for rural communities that are more sparsely populated and may have a lower median household income. A variety of factors are also leading to consolidation, and clinic closures across the landscape of primary care practices are exacerbating the problem of unequal distribution."

More federal funding for Community Health Centers is needed to not only open more clinics but also to keep pace with inflation, the report says. "While the Community Health Center fund has increased by 14% since 2015, medical care inflation has risen by 25%, leading to a 9.3% decrease in federal health center funding in real terms."

Community Health Centers are geared toward providing services in underserved communities, the report says. "Health centers place an emphasis on culturally competent care and intentionally recruit providers who are underrepresented in the medical profession and those who reflect the cultural diversity of their community. This results in providers who represent the diverse racial, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds of the communities they serve. Continued investments in these programs are necessary to sustainably grow the number of providers working in medically underserved communities and to strengthen the primary care workforce of the future."

Primary care is an essential component of the country's healthcare system, the report says. "Primary care providers can treat the common cold, ensure healthy childhood development, prevent future illness, manage chronic conditions, and connect patients to specialty services. Having a usual source of primary care is associated with decreased emergency department use and lower healthcare costs throughout the lifetime. On the other hand, a lack of access to primary care can weaken the public health response to future pandemics and could have dire consequences for patients, especially those facing compounding access barriers."

Community Health Centers should be part of the solution to the country's primary care crisis, the report says. "Health centers have a proven track record of filling primary care gaps in underserved communities, making them well-positioned to fill that need for the more than 100 million Americans who remain medically disenfranchised. The health center program has grown in the last five years to serve more patients and expand specialty services such as behavioral health, dental, and vision services in medically underserved communities. With sufficient resources, the health center program can expand into more underserved communities and continue to close the gap in primary care for America’s medically disenfranchised population."

Related: Poll Finds Consumers Embrace Virtual Primary Care

Christopher Cheney is the senior clinical care​ editor at HealthLeaders.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

More than 100 million Americans do not have access to primary care, mainly due to a shortage of primary care providers in their community, the report says.

Only 11% of the medically disenfranchised population is uninsured, which indicates that lacking access to primary care is not mainly related to insurance.

Without community health centers, 15 million more people would likely not have access to primary care.

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