From the CEO's Desk
Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Section: Spotlight Articles, April/May 2017

The news headlines may lead us to believe that policy-makers can’t agree on anything. Not so fast. There is an issue both Republicans and Democrats can and do agree on: the importance of Community Health Centers to our U.S. healthcare system. 

Health centers have been around for more than five decades, successfully responding to sickness and poverty in some of our most challenged communities. In March, about 40 Tennessee health center advocates traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with the members of our Congressional delegation. Our group included health center CEOs, board members, physicians, and many other representatives of health center staffs. We described the services provided by their local health centers in their districts, recounting stories about the many ways patients have benefited from accessible primary health care.

From office to office, we were met with encouragement and support. We encountered rare bipartisan consensus around the health center program. For a humble pilot project launched as part of the War on Poverty, to earn public trust as a nationwide, successful primary care system is indeed remarkable.

Health centers reduce unnecessary hospitalizations and they treat patients for a fraction of the cost of one emergency room visit. Health centers not only focus on illness prevention, they also reach beyond the walls of the exam room to address the factors that may cause it, such as homelessness, addiction, poor nutrition, or mental illness. Health centers are innovators in treating chronic conditions that, all too often, are ignored until they become a costly illness. They are trusted providers who are often the “canary in the coalmine” when it comes to confronting emerging public health challenges, such as the nationwide opioid use crisis.

Over the last decade, health centers have expressed concern over the increasing numbers of patients presenting with opioid use disorder. On my nightstand is the book Dream Land: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, in which author Sam Quinones pieces together the events that led to the unprecedented crisis we are currently confronting. He weaves the story of the impact of the revolution in pain management, over-marketing and over-prescribing practices, the proliferation of pain pill mills, and the availability of heroin. 

As I read through each chapter, I recall stories from health center clinicians over the years. In spite of the signs of a brewing crisis, the surge in addiction and drug overdose deaths still stuns me.  My hope is that this crisis has truly been a wake-up call for all of us. I am hopeful that changes are under way to make things better for the individuals, families, and communities that have suffered and continue to suffer so deeply. 

This issue of Connections includes an article about the way health centers are meeting the needs of patients with opiate addiction. Community Health Centers are finding ways to help. As trusted primary health care providers, health centers are uniquely positioned to play an important role in screening, offering treatment, and attending to the health care needs of all of their patients including those who improperly use opiates.

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