Imperial Beach Community Clinic
The Imperial Beach Community Clinic was established in 1971. Courtesy of the clinic

Community health centers are the frontline of our nation’s battle against COVID-19. Nonprofits like San Diego’s Health Center Partners of Southern California provide health care to 29 million patients nationwide — 25% of whom are uninsured,  and 70% of whom live in poverty.

America’s 1,400 community health centers operate 15,000 comprehensive care centers in medically underserved communities and subsist almost entirely on government funding. In California, 1 in 6 patients receives their healthcare from a community health center. In San Diego, that’s 1 in 5, or 20% of the population.

Throughout this pandemic, as pointed out by recent articles in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and USA Today, community health centers have continued treating their patients by offering urgent care, delivery and pick-up pharmacy services, telehealth and in-person primary care appointments, and even drive-through COVID-19 testing sites.

But community health centers face the same financial challenges that businesses do. Following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order, and the closing of schools and most businesses across Southern California, patients have stayed home, and scheduled appointments have dropped by half. Historically a low-margin operation, community health centers cannot sustain losses like these.

Opinion logo

Responsible for more than 11,000 jobs, the region’s community health centers have begun to furlough or lay off between a quarter and a third of their employees. As a result, some non-urgent healthcare services like oral health, behavioral health, optometry, podiatry and chiropractic care have been temporarily curtailed, or offered telephonically.

Our unsung heroes, our physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nurses and allied health professionals, remain committed to their patients, traditionally the more complex and chronically ill, often non-English speaking, who present with overlapping conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression and more. It’s this care that diverts thousands of patients from our overcrowded hospitals, keeping those most needed intensive-care beds available for the anticipated surge of COVID-19 patients in the weeks to come. There could be no worse time for the doors of community health centers to close due to insufficient funding.

The 16 members of Health Center Partners of Southern California, a group that includes Indian health services organizations and Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest, provides services for nearly 900,000 patients in a typical year.

Despite this clear need, community health centers like ours have received significantly less federal support than most other industry sectors. The 1,400 community health centers nationwide received only $100 million in funding from the first Coronavirus response bill, and $1.32 billion from the $2 trillion CARES Act. Locally, that breaks down to just $18 million for organizations that are already losing $30 million per month.

Other industry sectors have received billions more, including higher education ($14.2 billion for colleges and universities), the airline industry ($58 billion), and the agricultural industry ($9.5 billion). While that’s all well and good once the epidemic passes and the recovery commences, but how does this help us to safeguard San Diegans’ health and safety today and tomorrow?

Moreover, while every community health center has been hard hit during this pandemic, the nation’s largest ones with over 500 employees do not qualify for additional government support. These centers could lose more than $100 million collectively over the next three months and may not survive. Yet they are exactly the organizations we want open and fully staffed today, to brace for what’s to come.

I urge Congress to act now, and for Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to immediately allocate $7 billion of the $100 billion made available to healthcare providers in the CARES Act directly to community health centers.

Henry N. Tuttle is president and chief executive officer of Health Center Partners of Southern California.