Opinion

Much-needed relief

The CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers sounded an alarm Tuesday when he warned community health centers need financial help.

“If we can’t basically keep the lights on, we can’t expand services,” James Hunt was quoted as saying in a State House News Service story.

Hunt and health center directors are asking state legislators to consider the merits of creating a $30 million stabilization fund to aid in making centers financially secure while their directors and advocates like Hunt work with legislators and Gov. Baker to map out long-term financial stability efforts.

Health centers, like hospitals and nearly every other health service delivery institution, are not immune from the challenges of economically delivering health care and making it affordable for patients.

But financial assistance is far from a bailout or helping hand for health centers: It is an investment in important health providers who help stabilize communities. Lynn Community Health Center has evolved from a small neighborhood facility delivering services to a significant employer and downtown presence providing primary care and specialized care. The center has undergone expansions, won awards, and become a refuge and a lifesaver for Lynn residents.

Stabilization fund advocates point out that health centers now see more than 1 million patients annually in Massachusetts compared to 594,000 in 2006. The Lynn center’s evolution parallels that growth rate.

Opened in a Chestnut Street storefront in 1971, the Center moved to a house near Goldfish Pond in 1974. It expanded in size several times over with a 1993 move to Union Street. When Center administrators announced plans in 2010 to add a three-story addition next to 269 Union St., they pointed out how the Center would be at or near capacity for treating patients as soon as the addition opened.

Hunt said financial worries besetting Massachusetts health centers mirror national changes in health care. He is quoted as saying health centers experienced a “chilling effect” on day-to-day operations last year with the ultimately unsuccessful repeal of the Affordable Care Act and a missed federal funding deadline for health centers.

The money was ultimately reauthorized but Hunt told the News Service health centers had to hold off on long-term planning and implement hiring freezes until the federal spending picture became clearer.

He said some centers are operating at “just above the zero percent margin, where the rest of the healthcare industry tries to achieve 5 to 7 percent.”

But health centers are also economic powerhouses generating hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity. Lynn Community Health Center’s 650 staff workers and 150 clinicians handle 283,000 patient visits annually, according to the Center website.

Lynn’s healthcare landscape will look different once the city no longer has a traditional hospital. Union Hospital’s transformation into a proposed “medical village” and the seemingly ever-evolving national healthcare funding picture could mean changes for the health center.

The best preparation for those changes is a legislative effort to ensure centers across the state have a solid financial underpinning required to secure their roles as medical providers and economic contributors.

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