The Republican and Democratic Conventions are over, the delegates have headed home and the race for the presidency of the United States is heating up. It seems the campaign rhetoric becomes more disagreeable and divisive with each election cycle, giving the impression our federal government is dysfunctional. Often it appears our elected officials can’t agree on anything anymore. Yet somehow, someway, much of the business of government gets done.
A shining example of the accomplishments of our federal government is the Community Health Center program. For over 50 years, through good times and bad, the health center program has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress. The health center program was the centerpiece of the domestic agenda of President George W. Bush and experienced dramatic growth during his years in office. The Obama administration followed suit. Over the past five decades Republicans, Democrats and Independents elected to serve in Congress have supported appropriations for health centers. The support of east Tennessee legislators has been especially notable.
There are now 1,300 health centers with over 9,000 locations spread all across the United States providing health care to 25 million Americans. One out of every 14 people living in our country receives their primary medical care at a Health Center. Ten percent of the nation’s youth are served. No one is ever turned away from a health center because they cannot pay. One in seven Americans living in poverty receive their primary care at a community health center.
Cherokee Health Systems is the local health center providing care within Knoxville, Knox County and the surrounding area. Rural Medical Services based in Newport and Dayspring Family Health Center in Jellico are other health centers located within the east Tennessee region. Cherokee opened a clinic in Chattanooga three years ago. Last month Cherokee expanded to the Memphis market adding three existing inner city clinics and a Family Practice residency program. Last year Cherokee provided services to 65,355 individuals. That number is sure to increase this year as it has every year since the organization opened its doors over five decades ago.
Although health centers receive an annual grant from the federal government to help pay the cost of treating patients who have no health insurance, these organizations are locally operated and governed by a local board of directors. By federal law, the majority of the board must be patients of the health center. What a novel idea! Who better to understand the needs of the community, judge the effectiveness of the services and provide guidance to management than the patients of the organization.
Health centers generate most of their operating revenue from direct patient services by billing Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance companies. Only 11 percent of Cherokee’s current budget comes from the annual Federal Health Center grant. A portion of our budget comes from both local and state government. Knox County government contracts with Cherokee to provide primary care to some local residents who have incomes below the federal poverty guidelines. The state of Tennessee provides some funds to subsidize behavioral health services and primary care for some qualifying low income Tennesseans. Thus health centers are a federal, state and local partnership.
Health centers are effective. The quality of care at health centers equals, and often surpasses, that provided by other primary care providers. All health centers emphasize quality improvement activities and most are recognized as Patient Centered Medical Homes by the National Committee for Quality Assurance, a badge of distinction among primary care practices. Health centers provide behavioral health services in a unique, patient-friendly way by blending behavioral health professionals into the primary care team. These innovations help health centers improve patient outcomes while lowering the overall cost of care.
National Health Center Week is Aug. 7-13. The board of directors and staff of Cherokee Health Systems invite you to join us in the celebration. Community Health Centers — quietly, confidently and competently — addressing the health care needs of our nation.
Dr. Dennis Freeman is CEO of Cherokee Health Systems