Dr. Arethusa Kirk is Chief Medical Officer for the UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Maryland. Formerly a full-time, primary care pediatrician serving in a Federal Qualified Health Center (FQHC), Kirk is a featured writer and shares her perspective on how FQHCs serve the critical health care needs of the youngest members of the Medicaid population.
National Health Center Week recognizes August 15 as Children’s Health Day. On this day, we highlight Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) and the pivotal role they play in providing care for our youngest and most vulnerable members.
FQHCs act as a safety net for vulnerable individuals and are rooted in a long history of serving patients regardless of citizenship, insurance coverage or ability to pay for care. As a result, more than 8 million children in the United States get their primary health care from the more than 11,000 community health centers across the country.
These centers recognize how financial hardship can affect medical adherence and are staffed with providers who have committed themselves to caring for underserved populations. Providers in health centers study community needs and work to recognize social determinants of health affecting their patient base. To better serve these individuals, FQHCs often provide wraparound services, including dental screenings, integrated behavioral health and access to an on-site social worker. They also work to co-locate pharmacies, labs and Women, Infants & Children (WIC) Program offices to create a one-stop location where most needs can be met. While similar arrangements are slowly making their way into primary care settings across the nation, they find their roots in well-established FQHC models.
When it comes to caring for children and adolescents, FQHCs have also played a pivotal role in making care accessible in schools, including sponsoring school-based health centers staffed with an on-site licensed care provider. Many of these centers also provide behavioral health services, which further the holistic care of children.
The Vaccines for Children program, supported by the federal government, helps FQHCs administer vaccines to children who otherwise may not have access. COVID-19 has created additional barriers for these families, with many health centers opting to or having to close or only provide urgent services. But FQHCs are inventive by nature, and creative solutions such as separate scheduling times for sick and well care following reopening, along with increased clinic days, mobile clinics and telehealth options, could prove effective in helping children get back on schedule once FQHC doors reopen.
Supporting FQHCs as they transform during COVID-19
With the emergence of COVID-19, it has never been more evident that one person’s health can impact an entire community. In recognition of the change that will need to occur to keep FQHCs up to date and functioning in a COVID-19 environment, UnitedHealthcare has invested more than $20 million to support them and their transformation efforts. This investment will help offset the reduced office visits and services FQHCs have experienced due to stay-at-home/safer-at-home orders. It will also help transform practice delivery to include adoption or advancement of telehealth platforms and ensure safe infection control practices once FQHCs return to full operation. As part of this transformation, our commitment will also extend to addressing the health needs of pregnant women, children, chronic diseases and allowing for equitable and accessible COVID-19 testing.
Everyone deserves quality health care. FQHCs speak for all populations with a vibrancy that brings attention to the disparities that their patients face and, maybe most importantly, the unique needs of children. In anticipation of more individuals enrolling in Medicaid as a result of COVID-19, we will continue to bring attention to the widespread impact these innovative health centers have on our communities today and will depend on in the future.