Op-Ed

Community health centers provide quality, cost-effective health care

Customer Sherryl Cornish, left, gets her prescriptions from pharmacy technician Brenda Dubuc at the Unity Care NW pharmacy Nov. 24, 2015, in Bellingham.
Customer Sherryl Cornish, left, gets her prescriptions from pharmacy technician Brenda Dubuc at the Unity Care NW pharmacy Nov. 24, 2015, in Bellingham. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

In an election season, news headlines may lead us to believe that politicians can’t agree on anything. There is an issue Republicans and Democrats agree on: the importance of community health centers to our nation’s health. Community health centers have been around for five decades, successfully addressing illness, chronic health issues and the effects of poverty in some of our most challenged communities. What started with two health centers as part of a “War on Poverty” pilot program in 1965 has grown to over 1,300 community health centers nationwide serving nearly 23 million people.

Not only do community health centers save the nation’s health care system more than $24 billion a year and reduce unnecessary hospitalizations, but we also treat patients for a fraction of the cost of an emergency room visit. That is just one reason why this rare bipartisan consensus exists. House and Senate lawmakers in Congress recently signed their names to funding letters that declared health centers a model of care that offers a “bipartisan solution to the primary care access problems” facing our nation. The letters were signed by 62 Senators and 307 House Representatives and included a nearly equal balance of Republicans and Democrats. Locally, Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws, Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville and Ferndale Mayor John Mutchler have proclaimed the week of Aug. 7-13 as Community Health Center Week.

Not only do we treat people with high-quality, cost-effective health care before they are sick, we also address the factors that may cause illness, such as homelessness, poor nutrition or behavioral health.

Whatcom County is home to two community health centers: Unity Care NW and Sea Mar Community Health Centers. Unity Care NW was founded in 1982 by a coalition of community leaders, health professionals, volunteers, faith-based organizations and concerned citizens to provide services for low-income people with no access to basic health care. Today, Unity Care NW has grown to include four sites in Bellingham, Ferndale and Point Roberts, providing integrated primary medical, dental, behavioral health and pharmacy services to more than 18,500 of our neighbors.

As non-profit, federally-qualified community health centers, we have a unique responsibility to provide access to high-quality, affordable health care to all, regardless of patients’ insurance status or ability to pay. We value the collaborative relationships we enjoy with our community partners and with other community health centers across our state.

As we recognize National Health Center Week this week, we celebrate our record of achievement and appreciate that our leaders in Congress understand that we are valuable assets to U.S. taxpayers. Not only do we treat people with high-quality, cost-effective health care before they are sick, we also address the factors that may cause illness, such as homelessness, poor nutrition or behavioral health. We are innovators in treating chronic conditions that, all too often, are ignored until they become a costly illness.

We look forward to many more years of providing quality and cost-effective health care and to making Whatcom County a healthier and more vibrant place for us all.

Dan Whittle is board president of Unity Care NW.

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