Opinion

Ensuring an Ongoing Return On Health Care Investment

Community health centers contribute significantly to taxpayer savings

Community health centers have been leaders in addressing the country’s health care challenges for over 50 years, write Daschle and Leavitt. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

BY TOM DASCHLE AND MIKE LEAVITT

There has been much discussion about what an Affordable Care Act replacement plan will include, and how it will influence the shape and focus of our health care system. As our friends and colleagues in Congress begin collaboratively looking for the best health care solutions for the American people, they should consider a health care network that works — community health centers.

Health care is complicated, and insurance is even more so. Moving from one system to another carries both enormous political and human risk. There is not only hardship for those who fall between the cracks, but adverse long-term consequences for our nation’s health.

Fortunately, for over 50 years, community health centers have been leaders in addressing both of these challenges.

Community health centers have earned the support of both Republicans and Democrats, in the Congress and in the White House. And, as the country’s largest primary-care network serving over 25 million patients, community health centers offer a range of services (e.g., primary care, dental, pediatric care, pharmacy, behavioral health or substance abuse counseling, etc.) and provide a medical home for patients who need it most.

Their documented success in reducing chronic disease and improving population health comes from the idea that to prevent illness, one must also look beyond the medical chart to target the factors that impact health. Such factors include identifying health risks such as poor nutrition, lack of exercise, homelessness, and prescription drug abuse, as well as social determinants of health such as our environment.

Not surprisingly, these improvements in health outcomes have led to significant health care system savings. Indeed, there is little doubt that community health centers have contributed significantly to cost savings to the American taxpayer.

Health centers save more than $24 billion a year in avoided emergency room visits and hospitalizations, because they effectively manage and treat chronic disease, even among the most economically challenged populations. Furthermore, community health centers are on the front lines, working to combat emerging public health threats before they become national crises, such as last year’s Zika virus outbreak and the Flint, Michigan, water crisis.

Today, there are collectively over 10,000 health center locations nationwide in every state — typically in neighborhoods with few health care providers or options for medical care. They provide 180,000 jobs to people (including 5,000 veterans) and generate $26 billion in economic activity locally, in addition to delivering good care and providing affordable prescription drugs.

In addition to their broad geographic reach and economic impact, health centers are open to everyone, regardless of insurance status or ability to pay. But, health centers also require those who can afford to pay for their services based on income to do so. With modest federal support, health centers are accountable and governed by consumer boards comprised of patients and community members to ensure that taxpayer dollars are efficiently spent.

As we face growing uncertainty around the future of our health care system, it is even more critical that we strengthen and expand these health centers. Their unique mission and success in keeping health care costs down are why proposals to put health centers in more communities have garnered considerable bipartisan support. This support should continue as Congress looks to make decisions on some very complex health care issues.

While there is no simple fix, community health centers are one health care solution that can help us achieve a high-performing, high-quality, and cost-efficient health care system — goals with which we can all agree. Now is the time to simply make a commitment to reinforce and grow this nationwide network that already exists, and that, time and again, has produced a positive return on our country’s health care investment.

Tom Daschle, D-S.D., is a former Senate majority leader and is the founder and CEO of The Daschle Group, a public policy advisory of Baker Donelson that represents stakeholders across the health care industry.

Mike Leavitt, R-Utah, is a former secretary of Health and Human Services and a three-time elected governor of Utah. He is the founder and chairman of Leavitt Partners.

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