Community health centers are the backbone of our healthcare safety net 

Open Cities in St. Paul has served many thousands of people since 1967.
Photo by Chris Juhn

1965 was quite the year. Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr., Amelia Boyton Robinson, John Lewis, Marie Foster, and others in the Civil Rights Movement marched from Selma to Montgomery, demanding the right to vote in a demonstration that led to the landmark Voting Rights Act. 

A significant piece of our healthcare system also came into being with the passage of the Medicare & Medicaid Act, establishing health insurance for our elders and members in our community with limited incomes.

Also, the first two federally funded “Neighborhood Health Centers” were approved, launching our nation’s community health centers program. Its goal: improve the lives and well-being of Americans regardless of their ability to pay.

In Minnesota our community health centers (CHCs) do an incredible job, not only meeting the health and social service needs of many of our neighbors who would otherwise face barriers in accessing our state’s health care system as it’s currently structured but doing so while delivering a high quality of care. 

Minnesota joined CHCs across the nation to celebrate National Health Center Week August 7-13. This is an annual time to celebrate and reflect on the hard work that Minnesota’s CHCs perform to keep people healthy and safe in the face of so many institutional and ongoing challenges.

Nationwide, CHCs provide preventive and primary care services to nearly 29 million people, including nearly 200,000 individuals across Minnesota. These include neighbors who disproportionately suffer from chronic diseases like diabetes or heart disease and lack access to affordable quality care. 

CHCs are truly grounded in and led by our communities. Each of the 17 Minnesota community health centers tailors its services based on direction from a board of directors comprised of their patients and community members. 

Collectively, CHCs comprise the backbone of Minnesota’s primary care safety-net system and serve more people living in poverty than any other Minnesota health system. 

This translates to economic opportunity for our neighborhoods as well. In 2021, our state’s community health centers generated $327 million in economic activity and employed a healthcare workforce of nearly 2,000.  

Minnesota’s CHCs provide access to health care for all, regardless of their ability to pay, and also address the systemic barriers to care that impact so many of our neighbors—poverty, lack of stable shelter and food, substance use disorder, mental illness, unemployment, trauma, and racism—by complementing traditional health care with social services and community-responsive care. 

Health centers have been critical to the healthcare system in Minnesota for more than 50 years, partnering with and advising hospitals, health systems, health educators, local and state governments, businesses and others, working to ensure equitable and inclusive care that improves health outcomes for medically vulnerable and socially disadvantaged Minnesotans. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve quickly shifted to meet the needs of our communities by offering telehealth, community-based COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, refugee health screenings, care for the unsheltered, rural health care, and robust social service coordination. 

In fact, throughout the state’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign, CHCs efforts have consistently reached a higher proportion of Minnesotans from zip code areas of high social disadvantage than any other health care system. 

CHCs have accomplished this by being present in the community before and during the pandemic and making clear their commitment to remain long after the attention and resources that a global pandemic brings to health care fades away.

Therefore, our community health centers are more crucial now than ever. They continue to refine their services to meet the needs of people in their communities as access to basic care continues to erode, COVID-19 exacerbates social and health inequities, new challenges like Monkeypox arise, and people lose their health insurance through their job or through Medicaid. 

Each year Congress sets discretionary funding for CHCs, but since 2013 that level of funding has barely moved. It is crucial that Congress invest in both emergency and long-term funding for our community health centers that have invested in us. This stability is vital to ensure CHCs’ doors remain open to serve our communities through whatever comes next. 

It is not too late to take part in National Health Center Week 2022. I invite you to support your neighborhood community health center, celebrate their mission and accomplishments, and let our Congress members know what they mean to you. They will be there when you need them.