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Obama: $80 million for state community health

Howard Manly

Frederica Williams knows first hand the growing need for comprehensive medical services in communities of color.

As president and CEO of the Whittier Street Health Center, Williams also knows about the limited resources that she has to offer such services.

 “Demand continues to expand rapidly,” Williams explained, “yet there are still so many in our community going without vital health care.”

Williams received a shot of good news last week. In what has been hailed as “a big step forward” for community health centers across the country, President Barack Obama awarded $600 million in federal stimulus funds to help modernize facilities, expand capacity, create jobs and reach 500,000 new patients across the country.

Included in the White House package were eight community health centers in Massachusetts — four in Boston, and ones in Fall River, New Bedford, Lowell and Fitchburg — that will share $80 million in new federal funding.

Whittier Street will receive $12 million and that money will be used to help build a new $32.6 million, 78,000 square-foot facility on Parcel 3 in Roxbury near Roxbury Community College. Though patient visits have increased by 35 percent over the last two years, Williams said the center is ill-equipped to provide for the increased need in services.

As it is now, the center serves 13,000 patients each year and has about 50,000 annual visits. But, as Williams explained, “we cannot reach them in our current limited space. Because of this new building we will be able to double the number of patients we see each year and provide over 100,000 health and wellness visits annually.”

By most accounts, Gov. Deval Patrick receives the lion-share of credit for bringing home the largest state allocation of White House stimulus funds aimed at helping community health centers. In addition to the Whittier Street funding, the Mattapan Health Center will receive $11.5 million and the Dorchester House Multi-Service Center will receive $7 million.

The other recipients are Community Health Connections, Inc. in Fitchburg, the East Boston Neighborhood health Center, the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center, the HealthFirst Family care Center, inc. in Fall River, and the Lowell Community Health Center.

“I worked very hard to get those funds from Washington,” Patrick said. “Health reform in Massachusetts depends on being able to deliver quality care in local settings… we are now ready to give local economies a boost, create jobs for today and tomorrow and support the vital mission of these centers as they continue to deliver first rate health services.”

The support for the new Whittier Street building is strong.

“This investment is a lifeline for people struggling to pay their bills, desperate for a job, or in need of healthcare services,” said Sen. Kerry. “It will create jobs while modernizing and renovating the health centers that our most vulnerable seniors, pregnant women and families depend on.”

Dr. Gary L. Gottlieb, president and CEO of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, called the infusion of stimulus dollars “a big step forward.”

The hospital had previously made a $2 million commitment to the new Whittier facility.  

 “In short,” Gottlieb said, “this commitment will help prevent illnesses and improve the overall health of the community by providing access to some of the best doctors, nurses, and therapists in the area.”

In addition to increasing essential health services, the project is expected to create 50 new jobs at the health center and more than 450 construction jobs.

And that is music to the ears of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

 “In some neighborhoods community health centers are the largest employer, making their stability and vitality central to the community’s economy,” Menino said. “And given the current shortage of primary care providers coupled with an influx of newly insured residents, they are the destination point for many residents seeking a medical home.”

For his part, President Obama praised community health centers during a White House meeting to announce the funding.

 “Studies show that people living near a health center are less likely to go to the emergency room and less likely to have unmet critical medical needs,” Obama explained. “…the centers are proven to reduce ethnic and racial disparities in care.  And the medical expenses of regular health center patients are nearly 25 percent lower than those folks who get their care elsewhere — 25 percent lower.”    

 Without effective community health care, Obama explained, the consequences are all too well known. “…we end up treating complications, crises and chronic conditions that could have been prevented in the first place.

“And the cost is measured not just in dollars spent on health care, or in lost workplace absences and lower productivity, but in the kind of raw human suffering that has no place in the United States of America in the year 2009.”

Obama went on. “No matter what party we belong to, or where on the political spectrum we fall, none of us thinks this is acceptable,” he said. “ None of us would defend this system… because no matter what our politics are, we know that when it comes to health care, the people we serve deserve better.  

James W. Hunt, Jr., is president and CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, a network consisting of 52 community health centers serving more than 760,000 state residents.

According to Hunt, the capital needs of health centers across the state are substantial.   Following years of underfunded capital budgets, an August 2009 survey conducted by the League revealed “startling long-term gaps in resources for facility renovation and expansion and technology infrastructure development.” The 40 health centers responding to the survey reported a total need approaching $360 million for long-planned capital projects.

“While the Commonwealth’s health centers already provide primary and preventive care to one out of every 9 residents, the recession has resulted in an even greater spike in demand, particularly among middle income residents.,” Hunt said. “These funds will be pivotal in assisting these eight health centers in creating local jobs and ensuring health access as the economic crisis continues.”  

Interim U.S. Senator Paul Kirk says the late Sen. Edward Kennedy would have been especially pleased by the announcement because community health centers were among the first causes he championed in Washington.

Sen. Kennedy’s efforts were not lost on Williams.

“And of course,” Williams said. “some of our biggest thanks have to go to the late senator for his support of accessible health care, Whittier Street Health Center and this building project. When he gave his support for the project, it was as if there was a blessing for us to move forward. His legacy lives on in the work that we do everyday.”