Hilton Head Island Packet
Myrtle Beach Sun News
September 12, 2020
BY LATHRAN WOODARD AND FRANK KNAPP
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the weakness in the current health care system in a nation that is largely dependent on employer-based insurance.
A recent survey by the Commonwealth Fund found that 12.5% of adults were uninsured during the first half of this year.
However, with tens of millions of Americans losing and continuing to lose their jobs and their employer-sponsored health insurance, the number of individuals without health insurance is surely higher.
Obtaining affordable health care is thus a serious and growing problem — and it especially impacts minorities and low-income workers, who have experienced the most hardship from COVID-19 in term of both outcomes and costs.
According to the Commonwealth Fund survey, 45% of Blacks reported problems with paying medical bills compared to 35% of whites.
In addition those with incomes at 133% of poverty or lower had more problems paying medical bills (42%) compared to those with incomes at 400% of poverty or higher (27%).
A HEALTH CARE ASSET
However, the pandemic has also revealed a great health care asset for our country: Federally Qualified Health Centers
These community health centers provide quality care to all individuals regardless of their ability to pay or health insurance status.
And thanks to community health centers, many small businesses that can’t afford to offer health insurance can still benefit by having healthier and more productive employees.
During this health crisis, the services provided by Federally Qualified Health Centers have been vital.
For example, the 23 Federally Qualified Health Centers that are members of the South Carolina Primary Health Care Association have conducted 67,248 COVID-19 tests since the beginning of April.
Unfortunately, while the demand for testing at Federally Qualified Health Centers has been great, the normal patient load has decreased as it has for most primary care providers.
The public’s concern regarding possible exposure to the virus has kept many individuals from seeking the health care services they would have otherwise sought.
The result has been a revenue loss for Federally Qualified Health Centers, which has put great financial strain on these critical health care facilities.
Downsizing to meet revenue is not an option for Federally Qualified Health Centers because federal law requires them to provide services to all who come through their doors.
However, staffing issues are not just today’s priority.
There will likely be a higher demand for services due to an influx of current clients coming back in for primary care and newly uninsured patients joining them once the pandemic is over.
The community health centers must be prepared to respond, and it is clear that the need — which is already great now — will be even greater in the future.
Unfortunately, the budgeting for Federally Qualified Health Centers is constrained by the funding process in Congress.
The Community Health Center Fund, which accounts for nearly 70% of the budget for Federally Qualified Health Centers, is set to expire Nov. 30.
Over the past several years Congress has chosen to reauthorize the fund on short extensions lasting as little as two months.
However, this method of authorizing federal funds is making it all but impossible for Federally Qualified Health Centers to plan and handle the future critical health care needs in their communities.
The bottom line is Federally Qualified Health Centers are facing a crisis because of the program’s uncertain funding.
They need to address long-term staffing needs, equipment upgrades, facility expansions and Medicaid/Medicare compliance costs.
That’s why Congress should approve five years of funding for the Community Health Center Fund.
Only long-term funding will enable the community health centers to keep providing the quality, affordable services to medically underserved areas across our state and nation.
Lathran Woodard is CEO of the South Carolina Primary Health Care Association. Frank Knapp is CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.