After years of debate over health care reform, it might be easy to forget the many people and many institutions -- some often little noticed -- come together daily to treat people who don't have access to a doctor or cannot afford one.
No better example exists than community health centers, including the people who work in them and the groups that fund them.
Community health centers fill a vital need in our health care system. Every day they work long hours to provide quality care at prices that people can afford, and in a way that takes into account the challenges that they face in their lives. Studies show that people living near a health center are less likely to go to the emergency room and are less likely to have unmet critical medical needs.
What's often forgotten, however, is that community health centers cannot go it alone. While health care reform might be a fact of life, funding remains a constant challenge.
Unity Health Care's Minnesota Avenue Health Center is one of 30 sites within the Unity network in Washington, DC. According to Unity's research, they accommodate nearly 10,000 walk-in visits each year, but the need for more services is abundantly clear. In 2011, Unity's network provided care to more than 93,000 people, 89 percent of whom were considered working poor or uninsured.
This week, thanks to a four-year commitment from Teva Pharmaceuticals, Unity opened a new clinic that will increase walk-in visits by 6,000 a year. The walk-in clinic, providing four new exam rooms, will allow Unity to improve access to quality health care for underserved, uninsured and working poor residents of the District of Columbia.
Unity is an example of a community health center that relies upon donations, including corporate partnerships. Although community health centers routinely address basic medical care -- along with social, economic and public health issues -- many face a constant funding struggle. Some have even had to scale back their services because of limited resources.
Behind the scenes, centers rely on a mix of funding. They count on grants, donations, federal and state money, and fundraising events. It is by leveraging partnerships, often from companies with a vested interest in a community, that often make the difference.
As health care reform is being implemented, health centers are uniquely positioned to make a difference. But it is important to remember that greater investment is needed to strengthen and expand this important part of the health care infrastructure -- and that partnerships are one key way that will allow health centers to do more.