Patient visits to community health centers soar, report finds

Community health centers have seen a significant boost in patient visits over the past several years, according to a new report. 

Community health centers, or clinics that offer a variety of services to low-income or underinsured patients in medically underserved areas, saw 33% patient growth between 2010 and 2016, according to an analysis (PDF) from George Washington University's Milken Institute School of Public Health.  

Increases were most pronounced in states that expanded Medicaid. In Louisiana, for example, the number of patients visiting a community health center increased by 86%, and in Indiana the number increased by 83%. Seven states saw an increase of 200,000 or more patients visiting these facilities over the six-year window; five—New York, Indiana, Ohio, California and Washington—are expansion states. 

Texas and Florida, which did not expand Medicaid, also saw an increase of 200,000 or more patients visiting community health centers. 

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Sara Rosenbaum, professor of health law and policy at the Milken Institute SPH, said the expansion of insurance coverage across the country—both through expanded Medicaid and subsidized coverage in the individual markets—is the principal driver behind the growth.

But the funding from the federal government also allowed these facilities to expand. 

"It really has been huge growth in a short period of time," Rosenbaum told FierceHealthcare in an interview. "It's an example of years of investments working just the way you'd want them to work." 

For example, in the wake of the opioid crisis, many community health centers have beefed up their behavioral health offerings, as they frequently serve populations hit hardest by the epidemic, Rosenbaum said. Community health centers have also significantly expanded oral health care options for safety-net patients. 

That funding was in jeopardy for months, but Congress agreed to a two-year budget deal in February that extended the program. 

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The findings underscore the importance of the Affordable Care Act's Community Health Center Fund and other reforms enacted under the law, according to the report. 

"These impressive growth figures not only show the importance of health centers to the medically underserved communities they serve but also underscore the essential role played by the Affordable Care Act, both for its Medicaid expansion and for its health center fund," said Feygele Jacobs, president of New York-based RCHN Community Health Foundation, in the report. The RCHN Community Health Foundation is a not-for-profit dedicated to community health centers across the U.S.