The Affordable Care Act will provide $100 million to support some 150 new community health centers across the U.S. next year, which will increase people’s access to primary health services, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell announced today.

Community health centers are essential to providing affordable health care services in areas of the country that need it most, Burwell stressed. “In communities across the country, Americans turn to their local Community Health Center for vital health care services that help them lead healthy, productive lives,” Burwell said in the press release. “That’s why it’s so important that the Affordable Care Act is supporting the expansion of health centers.”

The Affordable Care Act has already spurred the development of over 550 health center sites in the past three years. These centers have also worked to assist enrollment in the health care program. “Since last fall, health centers have provided enrollment assistance to more than 4.7 million people across the country,” Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Administrator Mary K. Wakefield said in the press release. “We are pleased that the Affordable Care Act is supporting the establishment of additional health center sites to provide expanded opportunities for the newly insured to receive care.”

Lower Costs For The Uninsured And Underserved

Community health centers (CHC), or simply called health centers, are known for serving a “high-need community” — where people have little to no access to affordable health care. These centers provide primary care services as well as supportive services like education, translation, and transportation. They are supported by the HRSA and are described as providing “comprehensive, culturally competent, quality primary health care services to medically underserved communities and vulnerable populations.”

The community health center is the dominant form of primary care funded by the government in the “safety net,” which consists of physicians and health care professionals who are willing to serve the uninsured and underserved population. These health care providers either personally choose to, or are legally required to, serve this group of people. Though the notion of community health centers providing to low-income areas dates back to the early 1900s, they were officiated in the 1960s, when the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) established “neighborhood health centers” as a War on Poverty demonstration program.

“…[C]are delivered by community health centers is less expensive and ultimately saves money to the broader health care system,” Ellen-Marie Whelan writes on American Progress. “Studies estimate that the provision of care in community health centers ultimately saves the U.S. health care system between $9.9 billion and $24 billion annually by eliminating unnecessary emergency room visits and other hospital-based care.”

Indeed, the low-cost aspect of community health centers makes primary care services far more accessible for people all over the nation. And that’s why the Affordable Care Act plans to ramp up these centers in areas without accessible health care services. This boost in funding would improve after-hours urgent care, mental health services, 24-hour crisis intervention, staffing, and substance use counseling in community health centers around the nation.

Primary Care In The US

The expansion of community health centers could likewise improve the accessibility of primary care services, which is particularly lacking due to a low supply of primary care physicians in comparison to specialists, or doctors who focus on one particular area of medicine rather than general practice. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report noting that the U.S. has been lacking in primary care physicians. Some health professionals believe that community health centers could help in that area: “Some of the key values of the CHC model — a whole-person orientation, accessibility, affordability, high quality, and accountability — could well inform tomorrow’s primary care paradigm for all Americans,” several physicians write in a perspective in the New England Journal of Medicine.

It’s clear that this is just one of the funding boosts that community health centers will receive as Obamacare continues to be implemented, and its effect has yet to be seen. “The current health care system in America is not working,” the National Association of Community Health Centers writes on its website. “Too much money continues to be spent, while the number of uninsured and underserved people continues to rise, and the quality of care received remains inadequate. America now has the chance to make a public investment that will pay off in the future. Investment in the growth of Community Health Centers today is a smart choice for a healthier American tomorrow.”