January 06, 2012

Why Community Health Centers Matter

Imagine if critical documents you needed every day just to do your job were stored in another building, one you had to walk to and from, no matter the weather. Imagine hallways so narrow that you had to turn sideways to slide past your co-workers on your way to a meeting.  And imagine that that meeting—with a client or a colleague—took place in a room smaller than a closet in many American homes. If you work in or have visited a community health center, you may not have to imagine it. And yet, even under these conditions, a center I visited recently managed to squeeze 29,550 patient visits into its 13 tiny exam rooms in a single year.

Like most nonprofits, they’ve grown used to doing more with less. Their mission commands it. But there’s a growing constellation of organizations committed to furnishing them with enough capital to do more with more.

Owing to its sheer size, the future of American health care is perhaps the most consequential issue facing nonprofits. So, while the healthcare political battles continue in Washington and around the country, nonprofit and philanthropic organizations can’t wait for government wheels to turn. Health-care providers in low-income communities are seeing dramatic increases in demand for services: One center I visited recently has a waiting list of 3,000 patients.

For investors of any kind looking to make an immediate social impact on communities in need and introduce greater efficiency into the market, health-care centers are a great deal. Located in neighborhoods with limited medical-care options, community health centers that have won federal certification are required to serve everyone, regardless of whether they have insurance or can afford the care. In 2010, such centers served 19.5 million patients, 38 percent of whom were uninsured.

These numbers are expected to grow fast. According to Capital Link, a nonprofit consultancy, serving new patients will require more than $16- billion to build or expand facilities.

Though we don’t often think of them this way, community health centers are a critical part of our social and physical infrastructure, true workhorses of our neighborhoods, treating patients, educating residents about healthy behavior, and providing jobs.

One reason these centers are so good at saving money for communities is that their patients are not visiting emergency departments at hospitals where care is much more expensive. In fact, that has prompted some local hospitals to finance community health centers. And the upfront investment in long-term habits like eating healthily, treating diabetes, and monitoring asthma have well-established financial and health benefits that translate more or less directly into cost savings for communities.

Increasingly, communities are recognizing the value of health centers as nonprofit enterprises that consolidate government, private, and consumer dollars. These centers are critical engines of well-being in distressed communities, and we must continue to encourage efforts to ensure that their growth is done smartly and sustainably.