Community Health Centers
The Challenges of Providing Equal Health Care Access to All.
As CEO of Lowell Community Health Center (CHC), I am often asked just what a community health center is. I tell people that a CHC is like any other primary care provider, with one exception: We do not, indeed we cannot, turn anyone away due to inability to pay.
As a federally-qualified community health center, Lowell CHC exists to make sure everyone in Greater Lowell has equal access to health care, regardless of socio-economic status. We offer health care in a way that is financially and culturally accessible to the unique populations we serve. In Lowell, that means caring for patients who speak more than 40 languages, many of them refugees who experienced torture and persecution and have complex physical and behavioral health needs. In nearby Lawrence, meanwhile, the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center focuses on the cultural needs and health concerns of its predominantly Latino population.
It is safe to say that no two CHCs — and there are 1,300 throughout the United States — look the same.
Lowell CHC offers primary, specialty and walk-in care by skilled providers in a setting that is modern and professional. We accept public and private insurance and earn 74 percent of our income from fees and services, raising the remaining 26 percent through contributions, grants and a small number of subcontracts. We also operate a pharmacy, which is open to patients and the general public, and partner with Circle Health/Lowell General Hospital to offer a full-service lab. These are amenities typically available in larger private practices. Both are on-site. Soon we will offer dental and vision services.
CHCs — we are one of 49 in Massachusetts — are not your typical health care providers. More than 88 percent of Lowell CHC patients earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Forty-six percent of our patients are best served in a language other than English, which is why we provide medical interpretation — a service that isn’t covered by insurance — in 28 languages, either on-site or via telephone. We also operate two full-service, school-based health centers, one at Lowell High School and another at Stoklosa Middle School, making it easier to assure that students have required vaccines and easy access to health care and behavioral health services.
Our patients often have complicated stories and involved medical needs. We might spend as much time making sure a patient has food on the table and a roof over their head as we do taking their vitals and gauging their physical health. And our community health workers, all the while, are out in the community, visiting patients at home, screening people for diabetes or high blood pressure at health fairs, senior centers and during festivals and community events. Our behavioral health services are embedded in primary care to provide prompt and appropriate mental health care just how and when it’s needed. By offering affordable health services to those who might otherwise visit hospital emergency rooms for routine care, CHCs effectively reduce unnecessary, and costly, emergency room and hospital admissions.
Straddling the line between medical center and social service organization, Lowell CHC is a vital resource in our community, both as a health care provider serving 50,000 people annually, and as an economic engine. The health center movement was launched 51 years ago, right here in Massachusetts, with a dual purpose: providing equitable health care to all and creating jobs in communities where living-wage job opportunities were, and are, lacking. Not only does Lowell CHC provide vital health services to the community, but we’re the 10th largest employer in the city of Lowell, providing living-wage jobs to nearly 400 people from throughout the Merrimack Valley.
So, what exactly is a community health center? It’s a vital health care resource assuring that everyone — you, me, our neighbors and friends — have equal access to the kind of health care we all deserve.
Last year, we sat down with Susan West Levine as began her new position as CEO at Lowell Community Health Center. Click here to read the entire interview.