Editorial: Health centers key to access, cost control

By:  Editorial Board

Projects like the expansion of the community health care center in Burlington will play a key role in meeting the goal of health care reform efforts -- better access to health care for more Americans.

The $11.3 million expansion that broke ground Monday will allow the health center in Burlington's North End to serve about 16,000 patients a year, an increase of 3,500 or 28 percent. The health center takes patients regardless of their ability to pay or their insurance status.

The bulk of the Burlington expansion costs, $10.9 million, will be covered by federal stimulus money with another $10 million designated for Vermont's seven other community health centers.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a strong proponent of community health centers, pushed to double the money set aside for such clinics nationwide in the stimulus bill to $2 billion. Sanders also wrote the provision in the health care reform bill that designates $11 billion for the centers.

Billions of dollars for health care centers might seem like a lot of money, but consider this: Reducing cost as an issue in routine care can help overcome the psychological barriers that might keep people from getting care until they are forced to seek treatment for more serious conditions at much greater expense.

A community health center in your neighborhood also can reduce the cost of transportation and for some people can be less intimidating than a hospital or a private doctor's office even for people with insurance.

The nation has a better chance of controlling health care cost in the long run if Americans are healthier, focus on prevention and catch problems before they become conditions that will cost much more to treat.

As Sanders says, "As important as health centers are for providing access to primary care for everyone, they also dramatically reduce costs by treating patients before they become so sick that they wind up in emergency rooms or hospitals."

Those seeking emergency care are rarely turned away even if they are unable to pay, meaning the bill ultimately must be paid by others through increases in fees charged by doctors and hospitals, and higher insurance premiums.

That makes paying to ease access an investment with a potential payoff of curbing our long-term health care costs.

While the national debate has focused on getting health insurance coverage to more people, just as important is to make it easier for more people to receive regular checkups and routine care.

Community health care centers do just that for people who might otherwise decide to go without.