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Community Health Centers Juggle Demand, Operational Headwinds

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Thursday, August 10, 2023   

This week is National Health Center Week.

The facilities help to close care gaps in underserved communities, and regional and national leaders hope recruiting efforts and pleas for federal funding pay off as they try to meet demand.

Last year, Community Health Centers served a record 31.5 million patients in places such as rural areas, communities of color and tribal areas. In 2021, nearly 136,000 individuals in North and South Dakota sought care at these facilities.

Shelly Ten Napel, CEO of the Community Healthcare Association of the Dakotas, said like other sectors, they face pressure in finding enough staff members to keep centers operating.

"The resources are there, the desire's there, the need's there," Ten Napel explained. "It's just the challenge of recruiting folks."

The shortages are especially felt among nurses who help with primary care and those who see dental patients. Her organization hopes to expand outreach to convince more people to enter the fields. While there are current resources to fill open positions, a federal funding extension expires at the end of September. There is bipartisan support to address it, but the Congressional recess creates uncertainty.

Susan Burton, director of national grassroots advocacy for the National Association of Community Health Centers, said with Capitol Hill in recess, advocates are inviting Congressional members from both sides of the aisle to visit a health center in their districts to better understand the urgent need for continued resources.

"Community health centers are small businesses, and imagine being a small business and not knowing if you're going to have funding coming in to pay your vendors or to sign a contract with your employees," Burton pointed out. "And if community health centers don't know that they're going to have funding year to year, it's really difficult for them to recruit and retain providers."

One in 11 Americans are health center patients, and Ten Napel noted they serve everybody, regardless of their ability to pay.

"We serve people on a sliding-fee scale based on income," Ten Napel emphasized. "Health centers really try to wrap around a whole range of services that people may or may not need. So, we think about things like transportation and access to affordable medication."

The centers also help the uninsured, but Ten Napel said South Dakota's implementation of Medicaid expansion will make things a lot easier. She encouraged those eligible to apply.

Disclosure: The National Association of Community Health Centers contributes to our fund for reporting on Budget Policy and Priorities, and Health Issues. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.


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