Commentary by U.S. Senator Ben Cardin
For many Americans, the month of August represents the last days of summer before vacation season ends and children go back to school. But the second week of the month also marks an important commemoration: National Health Center Week. For more than 45 years, federally qualified health centers have provided affordable, high quality, cost-effective health care to millions of Americans who would otherwise go without essential services. They also provide enormous economic benefits to communities and result in a substantial savings of taxpayer dollars.
Federally qualified health centers—often referred to as community health centers—are open to all people regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay. Nationwide, 7,900 centers serve more than 20 million patients, many of whom are covered by Medicaid or are uninsured. The Affordable Care Act, which became law in March 2010, provides $11 billion in funding over five years to build new health care centers and expand existing ones, effectively doubling their capacity to more than 40 million patients by 2015. By that date, it is estimated that community health care centers will provide affordable health care to two-thirds of low-income Americans.
Maryland is home to 16 community health centers with 111 delivery sites serving more than 261,000 people. These centers are primarily located in low-income urban and rural areas where few physicians have private practices. Marylanders rely on these centers for important preventive services, such as immunizations, health education, mammograms, pap smears and other screenings. These health care centers improve health outcomes for patients and help reduce the cost of treating patients with chronic illness.
Federally qualified health centers provide an important economic benefit to their communities, generating $20 billion in economic activity and providing more than 189,000 Americans with jobs in 2009. By 2015, these centers are expected to generate more than $931 million in economic benefits for Maryland. Additionally, the preventive services offered by these centers will keep millions of Americans out of costly emergency rooms, saving our nation an estimated $122 billion in health care costs, including $55 billion in Medicaid costs between 2010 and 2015.
Another key benefit of community health centers is their effectiveness in combating infant mortality. Maryland ranks 39th in the country in infant mortality largely due to low-birth weight babies resulting from inadequate prenatal care.
I have visited health centers throughout our state, including the Greater Badens Walker Mill Health Center in Prince Georges County, Choptank Community Health Systems Fassett Magee Health Center in Dorchester County, West Cecil Health Center in Cecil County, and Tri-State Health Center in Allegany County. All of these centers have been able to expand their prenatal care and other primary care services thanks to either the Affordable Care Act or the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Maryland is known nationally for its outstanding health care services and community health centers play an important role in ensuring that all our residents have access to quality, affordable health care. National Health Center Week gives us an opportunity to celebrate all we have accomplished and focus on expanding quality health care to all Marylanders.
Editor's Note: There are two/2 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) in Southern Maryland: Greater-Baden Medical Services, Inc., 4375 Port Tobacco Rd. in Nanjemoy and Greater-Baden Medical Services, Inc., 23140 Moakley Street, Suite 4, in Leonardtown.