For more than 50 years, federally qualified health centers (FQHC) have delivered vital primary care to underserved communities across the country. The first of these clinics opened in the early 1960s, thanks to President Lyndon Johnson’s Neighborhood Health Centers plan. Today, 236,000 providers working out of 12,000 FQHC delivery sites served more than 28 million of America’s most vulnerable citizens, including veterans, people experiencing homelessness, public housing residents, and agricultural workers.
Because these clinics care primarily for underserved communities, they often find themselves at the forefront of this country’s emerging public health emergencies. For example, over the last few years, FQHCs have been heavily involved in combating the opioid epidemic. In 2018 alone, these clinics identified 1.1 million people for substance abuse disorders and provided treatment for 95,000 opioid addicts. More recently, FQHCs have mobilized to care for patients impacted by the spread of COVID-19. This particular crisis stands to impact FQHCs in unprecedented ways.
In the early days of the pandemic, researchers and the media focused on individual risk factors like age and underlying conditions to parse the risk COVID-19 presented to the community. As the disease has progressed, however, researchers now believe social factors play a critical role in determining if someone will get sick, how severe the illness becomes, and even if they’re more likely to die. As it turns out, members of underserved communities are more likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19 and are far more likely to die.
A new Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study found that Black, Hispanic, and Latino people are dying from coronavirus at much higher rates than whites. For example, death rates for Black, Hispanic, and Latino people between the ages of 45-54 are six times higher than for white people. In Michigan, Blacks make up 15% of the population but account for 35% of all COVID-19 diagnoses statewide, and 40% of all deaths. This same disparity shows up in other states like Illinois, Louisiana, and Wisconsin.
Poverty also plays a role in a person’s susceptibility to the disease. Areas with high poverty rates like Mississippi, the Navajo Reservation is the American Southwest, and Memphis, Tennessee, have been hit hard by the pandemic. While the reasons for these racial and economic disparities are complex, they mirror the same conditions that prompted the development of the FQHC system so many decades ago. Namely, that poor people, rural residents, and people of color often live with underlying health conditions and typically don’t receive the primary care necessary to live long, healthy lives.
The sudden influx of very sick and very infectious patients has had a tremendous effect on FQHC delivery. Many patients are delaying or foregoing care to limit their potential exposure to the disease. As a result, weekly office visits are at 68% of their pre-COVID levels. Providers have also conducted nearly 150,000 COVID-19 tests, 64% of which were for racial or ethnic minorities.
In the process, many providers have scrambled to adopt telemedicine technology to both expand their treatment capacity and protect frontline healthcare workers. At the same time, clinics have been forced to build a testing infrastructure while seeing an overall decline in traditional clinic traffic. These once-in-a-lifetime factors converged to create a severe funding crunch for many FQHCs. With the pandemic showing little sign of slowing, these clinics may need to operate under these tough conditions for the foreseeable future.
Fortunately, the Federal government understands the essential role FQHCs play in community health care and are providing resources to help these clinics meet the moment. So far, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) has produced three rounds of supplemental funding totaling approximately $2 billion to help Health Care Centers cover COVID-19 costs. Struggling FQHCs may also be able to tap other Federal economic relief funds like the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program and Paycheck Protection Program. The CARES act also includes a Provider Relief Fund, which supports healthcare-related expenses or lost revenue attributable to COVID-19.
In another significant move, The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) COVID-19 Telehealth Program is offering $200 million in telehealth funding for providers responding to the COVID-19 healthcare emergency. We’ll dig into the details of these programs in future posts.
While the pandemic plays out, the country’s network of FQHCs will continue treating our most vulnerable citizens. At the same time, Scribe-X will support our FQHC customers with ScribeBridge — our telehealth platform — and our team of highly trained and highly effective medical scribes.
Our scribes work alongside providers, both in-person and remotely, to record the entire patient encounter in the electronic health record. By delegating data entry tasks, providers can focus more completely on their patients, while scribes enter accurate records for billing and quality metric reporting purposes.
If you’d like to learn more about how our team can help your FQHC succeed in these challenging times, contact us today at firstname.lastname@example.org. Until then, make sure to check our blog regularly for more in our series on how COVID-19 impacts our Health Care Centers.