Essie St. Dennis
and members of the Bullhook
Clinic Board of Directors
A leaner federal budget might be the order of the day in the nation’s capital, but in our corner of rural America the solution is not so simple. Cutting programs that provide vital services to vulnerable populations — and specifically the federal Community Health Centers program — might actually increase the costs borne by all taxpayers.
In our experience as Community Health Center board members serving our community here in Havre, we see firsthand what happens when people are denied basic health care because they don’t have insurance or, like many, they only carry catastrophic insurance that does not cover primary care for their family.
Because they often lack access to affordable, consistent, convenient preventive health care and providers, they forgo health conditions. This forces them to frequently turn to emergency rooms, using them as their health care provider or urgent care facility. Simple upper respiratory infections or a diabetic out of control increases the financial burden shared by all in the community when emergency rooms are used as the primary care facility. Community Health Centers provide preventive health care by updating immunizations and treating communicable diseases when identified. Programs are in place that help patients to defray their costs for diagnoses of diabetes, hypertension and elevated cholesterol panels. We work with pharmaceutical companies to assist with medications and apply for grants to reduce the burden of cost to our already compromised public health system.
Health centers like ours often provide a better approach to serving local populations of underserved patients. Across the state of Montana and along the Hi-Line, health centers are strong partnerships of people, governments and communities working together to meet the health care needs of vulnerable populations. All together, we save the national health care system nearly $24 billion each year in health care expenditures, due in large part to our ability to keep patients healthy who would otherwise be unable to find or afford routine preventative care offered by private profit driven health care organizations.
Health centers are locally controlled, nonprofit entities directed by patient majority boards of directors, which ensures each health center is accountable and responsive to the community it serves. It’s no wonder that the health centers program was rated as one of the most effective federal programs by then-President George W. Bush’s Office of Management and Budget. Indeed, presidents of both parties and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have long-recognized the value of community health centers and supported their expansion.
In the past year community health centers across the region were on track to double their patient capacity to nearly 40 million patients over the next five years. This expansion would have brought comprehensive health center services such as immunizations, prenatal care, dentistry and mental health services to communities that currently lack them. However, in the current tight fiscal climate, health centers now face significantly reduced federal support, leaving little resources for expansion efforts and little hope for the 800 communities that have submitted applications for a health center.
Together as a nation we bear a responsibility to address the growing national debt, but at times like these we should be even more thoughtful about investing our limited resources wisely. We should not weaken our safety net or turn away from proven local solutions like community health centers, which both improve health for working families and vulnerable citizens, and save money for the American taxpayer. Since National Health Center Week, Aug. 7-13, is upon us, there is no better time to reflect on the growing numbers of people who need affordable health care and could benefit from having a Community Health Center in their neighborhood. To find out more about how Community Health Centers in our area are saving lives and dollars, visit the one in your local neighborhood.
(Essie St. Dennis is chair of the Bullhook Community Health Center's Board of Directors. The column is co-signed by directors Angela Twombly, vice chair; Jessie Schweigart, treasurer; Mike Cary, secretary; and members, Mary Papas, Todd A. Hanson, Charlie Klimas, Jana Nordboe, and Phil Sayers.)