Community health centers are the backbone of equity in our healthcare system | Guest column

By Sen. Manka Dhingra and Lisa Yohalem

After two years on the frontlines of pandemic response, our health care system has taken a beating. Providers such as community health centers have felt serious impacts on their workforce and finances. While federal emergency funds helped keep clinic doors open, a booster was desperately needed. Recognizing the problem, the Washington State Legislature recently delivered key investments to strengthen the system and advance health equity.

These investments recognize the vital role our health care safety net plays in protecting our communities, particularly for vulnerable populations that are often disproportionately affected and have less access to care. Community health centers such as HealthPoint, with clinics throughout east and south King County, went into hyperdrive when the pandemic hit, expanding telehealth and prescription delivery services and opening COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites.

As trusted members of their communities, these health centers were able to partner with a broad range of local groups to provide education, address hesitancy, and vaccinate community members. Using an equity lens, they worked with schools, faith-based organizations, public health districts, community centers, fire departments, businesses and other organizations to reach as many people as possible.

While community health centers were able to transform their care delivery virtually overnight, their payment models weren’t as easy to adjust during the crisis. We discovered state funding was inadvertently disrupting community health centers’ finances, either through payment shortages or when “normal times” metrics couldn’t be met due to emergency shutdowns, safety measures or patient hesitancy.

On the positive side, the pandemic helped shine a light on health equity. In the long term, prioritizing the health of those who have historically been underserved will require building on the strengths of community health centers. Our Legislature’s commitment to health equity is more than just talk, and that’s why this year’s state budget delivered funding to ensure the ongoing financial stability of these crucial community assets.

With a budget that puts people first, the Legislature also invested in behavioral health care, addressed dental care shortages for low-income patients by funding construction of new dental clinics, and expanded health coverage to all uninsured adults below 138 percent of the federal poverty level, regardless of immigration status.

We can’t talk about health and well-being in our communities without talking about affordable housing. Stable, safe housing is essential to ensuring good health. To that end, the Legislature established a program to provide housing benefits to people enrolled in Medicaid who have medical risk factors that increase the barriers to finding stable housing.

The strong history of our state’s commitment to community health stood us in good stead; even though we had the first COVID outbreak in the country, Washington has the 5th lowest COVID-related death rate of any state. This legislative session affirms our commitment to maintaining a strong health care safety net and achieving health equity for all.

Manka Dhingra is deputy majority leader in the Washington State Senate and represents the 45th Legislative District.

Lisa Yohalem is the CEO of HealthPoint, a non-profit community-based network of health centers dedicated to providing high-quality health care to all who need it, regardless of circumstances.