Community health centers serve more than 210,000 people in Maine. Credit: Courtesy of Penobscot Community Health Care

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As the U.S. slowly opens back up, many Americans worry about whether our country’s health care system can support the spikes in coronavirus infections happening around the country. Thanks in large part to Maine’s rational approach to the pandemic, the number of COVID-19 cases in our state remains relatively stable.

Yet, we cannot overlook the toll that the pandemic has taken on our state’s economy and on our health and well-being. Loss of jobs and income is increasing mental, emotional and physical stress at a time when the ability to pay for medical care is decreasing. With Maine’s economy so heavily dependent on seasonal cycles of tourism and natural resources, we will feel the economic impacts of this pandemic for many long months to come.

The pandemic and subsequent economic fallout has underscored the importance of having access to quality health care regardless of income. Community health centers play a crucial role in the U.S. health care system by providing high-quality health care in underserved areas, from urban communities where few residents can afford private medical services to remote areas where hospitals and private medical facilities are miles away. Community health centers are more essential now than ever before.

Maine’s community health centers serve more than 210,000 people annually, a number that will most likely rise from the economic downturn. Seventy locations throughout the state provide services on a sliding fee scale, offering affordable health care options to all residents, including those who are just above the threshold for Medicaid coverage. Community health centers are Maine’s health care safety nets because no one is turned away.

Community health centers are on financial shaky ground, however, because Congress has failed to allocate sufficient emergency funding during the pandemic and has yet to reauthorize long-term funding for community health centers as it has done for decades. Unless Congress acts quickly, millions of Americans could lose access to health care services that they depend on.

Community health centers are the only nearby primary care option available in many areas of our state. Health centers provide a broad range of services, including dental, behavioral health, immunizations and other preventative services. Counseling services are critically important at this time, as are the medication-assisted treatments for opioid use disorder, which is another pandemic killing thousands of people in this country. Comprehensive in-person and telehealth services enable community health centers to handle more complicated medical conditions of older patients, as well as routine checkups for children.

But community health centers need stable, long-term funding in order to offer complete health care, as well as compete with urban markets elsewhere in New England in order to recruit, train and retain quality staff and physicians to rural locations. Without the financial support we need, we cannot ensure Mainers will have close access to the quality health care they deserve.

Federal support for community health centers also makes good financial sense. Community health centers across the U.S. save the American health care system $24 billion annually. In Maine, every $1 in federal investments generates $4.74 in economic activity across the state. Community health centers also support more than 3,000 Maine jobs.

Community health centers are uniquely positioned to address Maine’s health care needs at this time, but Congress’ reluctance to secure funding is putting access to health care services at risk. To prepare for the long-term consequences of the economic downturn, we need Congress to sufficiently fund and create long-term financial stability for community health centers.

Members of Maine’s congressional delegation have supported community health center funding in the past, and we’re calling on them to include in the next economic stimulus package $8 billion in emergency funding over the next six months and an additional $69.7 billion over five years to stabilize community health centers, strengthen the workforce and improve telehealth and other infrastructure needs. We need to ensure America’s health care safety nets are broad enough and strong enough for the long haul until our country fully recovers.

Martin Sabol is the immediate past board president of the Maine Primary Care Association and the director of health services at Nasson Health Care in Springvale.