Bob Marsalli and Ji Choi, DDS

Community Health Centers (CHCs) are the lifeblood of our health care safety net. They provide essential health, dental, and behavioral health care without regard to economic or insurance status. In Washington, CHCs care for more than one million lower-income people, many of whom are insured through Apple Health (Medicaid) or are uninsured. This National Health Center Week is an opportunity to thank the front-line providers and staff at more than 320 clinic sites across our state for their dedication and commitment to providing high quality, affordable healthcare to individuals and families, regardless of their ability to pay.

That commitment has been front and center during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Community Health Centers find innovative ways to provide primary care to patients. They are playing a critical role by testing, treating, and educating patients and non-patients at most clinic sites. Yet, CHCs are dealing with significant financial burdens just as there is an increased need for services. The stay-at-home orders, while necessary to flatten the curve, resulted in significant revenue loss for the clinics and a backlog of patients needing care. Even as revenues declined, the need for personal protective equipment, infection control and social distancing requirements have dramatically increased costs.

As more Washingtonians lose employment, along with their health and dental insurance, CHCs must be economically stable to meet this increase in demand for access to care. If people cannot get preventive dental and medical care, they often seek more expensive emergency room care in already overburdened hospitals.

Given the State’s sizeable budget deficit, there is concern that Medicaid dental coverage for low-income adults will be on the chopping block. This would be disastrous for Community Health Centers who rely on the Medicaid dental program for financial sustainability. For some rural communities, CHCs are the only providers accepting Apple Health and uninsured patients. A lack of dental coverage would be disastrous for these patients, whose oral health is essential to their overall health.

Oral disease is linked to diabetes complications and heart disease—both major risk factors of COVID-19. The majority of CHC patients are low-income people, and many come from communities of color who are already most affected by COVID-19 and historic health inequities. Health equity is not possible until these underserved populations have access to high-quality medical and dental care.

Now more than ever, it is clear that everyone must have every opportunity to achieve good health. Health care, including dental care, is a basic human right. During National Health Center Week, let’s thank all the providers and staff whose passion and commitment to serve offers hope for the future. Let’s join their efforts to ensure that all people have the care they need to stay healthy.

Bob Marsalli is CEO of the Washington Association for Community Health
Ji Choi, DDS, is Chief Dental Officer at Columbia Basin Health Association, a Federally Qualified Health Center, and Arcora Foundation Board member