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Lowering the cost of health care through community health centers

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Lowering the cost of health care through
community health centers
By U.S. Rep. Jeb Bradley

In terms of technology, innovation, service and quality of care, the United States has a very good health care system. But the rising costs of health care and insurance premiums, and limited access to insurance and care, threaten that health care system.

Emergency rooms across the country are treating more and more uninsured patients for relatively minor afflictions that could be treated with routine primary care, which is far less costly than care received at the emergency room. Taxpayers spend over $18 billion on largely avoidable emergency room visits each year. Anyone who has ever received a bill for care at the emergency room knows just how expensive that treatment can be. All of us end up paying for it in the long run.

An effective way to reduce health care costs is to ensure that individuals receive primary and preventative care from providers before ending up in the costly emergency room. Community health centers (CHCs) are community-based health care clinics that deliver primary and preventative health services to individuals who are either uninsured or have inadequate coverage. Last year alone, over 15 million patients received care at a community health center in the U.S. In New Hampshire, over 90,000 patients sought care at one of 13 CHCs across the state.

CHCs lower health care costs. They provide routine, primary care for uninsured and underinsured patients, preventing the need to visit the most expensive point in health care delivery, the emergency room. Many CHCs also offer dental care, encouraging the development of long-lasting dental hygiene habits that will help to prevent major dental and health problems later in life.

Another reason why CHCs work so well is that each one is governed by a local board of directors, with the populations served representing at least a 51 percent majority. This allows the center to better target local needs, such as educational campaigns and other forms of outreach within the community it serves, while maintaining the center's core focus on patient health care.

CHCs are working. Studies show that every $1 invested in CHC diabetes management saves $3 to $4 in hospitalization costs related to future complications. Additionally, CHCs save the Medicaid program 30 percent in annual spending on each beneficiary. This adds up to big savings for states struggling to meet the needs of beneficiaries while reining in unsustainable health care costs.

Over the past several years, I have had the opportunity to visit CHCs in Newmarket, Dover, Manchester and Portsmouth and see firsthand the difference they make in our local communities. That is why I continue to support the important role that CHCs play in reducing health care costs.

Congress has recognized the benefits of community health centers in providing health care needs to underserved populations. In the fiscal year 2006 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations bill, Congress funded CHCs at $1.9 billion, an increase of $66 million over last year. Over the last five years, Congress has increased funding for CHCs by 48 percent, or $565 million. In New Hampshire, I was pleased to help obtain federal funding for Lamprey Health Care in Newmarket, which helped the center recently expand in order to provide more services to patients in the Seacoast area. I am working on a similar appropriation for the Avis Goodwin Community Health Center in Dover.

As I speak with New Hampshire residents, small business owners and health care professionals about health care costs and access to services, we must be willing to reform existing laws and seek innovative methods of providing quality health care at reasonable costs. Measures such as expanding community health centers, reforming medical malpractice laws, allowing small businesses to pool together to purchase health insurance, and allowing Americans to save money in health savings accounts will go a long way in improving access to and reducing the cost of health care for all Americans.

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