Commentary - August 15th, 2014
3:13 pm
Fri August 15, 2014

Community Health Centers: Ensuring Access to Health Care for Montanans

I want to tell you a familiar story. A young man, we’ll call him Joe, he doesn't make a lot of money, has a toothache and needs to see a dentist, but doesn’t have dental insurance. In a lot of communities this guy is going to land in the emergency room, get some pain meds, maybe antibiotics, and then he’ll call all over town trying to find a dentist he can afford.

But instead, he calls his local community health center, is able to set up an appointment pretty quickly, and signs up for the sliding fee scale, where the amount he pays is based on his moderate income. He sees the dentist and can afford to pay his bill. This is good for him, but also good for our health care system. The emergency room is the best place to get care if you are in an auto accident or have a stroke. But it is really expensive and not the most helpful place when you have a toothache.

At Montana’s community health centers, there are countless stories like Joe’s. And as we observe National Health Center Week, we are celebrating the important work of the 17 health centers, with 44 sites across our great state. From Troy to Ashland, Dillon to Chinook, health centers provide high-quality, affordable care to more than 100,000 Montanans - both insured and uninsured.

Most of our health centers also provide dental care and offer services that help our patients access care, such as transportation, translation, and case management. We screen, diagnose, and help patients manage chronic illnesses like diabetes, asthma, depression, cancer and HIV/AIDS. We also serve everyone who comes through our doors – regardless of their ability to pay or whether they have insurance.

Montana’s community health centers are part of a national network of more than 9,000 centers, serving 22 million Americans. Data shows that our high quality care reduces health disparities and improves patient outcomes. Health centers are cost effective because they reduce or eliminate, the need for more costly care such as emergency room visits.

The Affordable Care Act works to increase the number of American with health insurance – we’re pretty familiar with this part of the law. But health reform also recognized that in addition to insurance, we need to make sure that there are primary care providers to meet the needs of people in our communities, many of whom are newly insured. The ACA has invested in community health centers so they can hire more providers, be in more communities, see more patients.

But the grant funding that community health centers receive to provide this increased access is set to expire next year - Montana’s community health centers face a reduction of up to 70 percent in grant funding - unless of course Congress decides to come together and take action.

We have made great strides in increasing access to preventive and primary care –This funding shortfall would be a huge blow to our health centers and dangerous to the communities they serve. Now is not the time to turn back.

But back to the issue of insurance – Montana needs Medicaid expansion. As many as 70,000 Montanans have been denied health insurance because of our state Legislature failed to expand Medicaid. These are people in our community, working Montanans, with incomes too low to be eligible for tax credits on the Health Insurance Marketplace - they don’t make enough money to qualify for help so they have no affordable health insurance options and remain uninsured.

At health centers, we will continue to care for these folks, but our primary care services only go so far. It is time for 70,000 of our friends and neighbors to have access to comprehensive care – it is time to expand Montana Medicaid.

This week, we celebrate the work of community health centers across Montana, but we also look to the opportunities and challenges ahead. Thank you to our patients and our communities. We look forward to serving you, and will continue to work for a Montana where everyone has access to comprehensive and affordable health care.

I’m Olivia Riutta with the Montana Primary Care Association. Thanks for listening and have a fabulous weekend.