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Community health centers on front line of expanding care

Posted July 9, 2010

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— The federal government will dole out $1 billion in the coming months to community health centers nationwide so they can expand to accommodate the crush of patients health care reform is expected to bring.

The money, which health centers must apply for, is part of $11 billion the government will allocate to community health centers in the next few years under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Federal funds will help the centers hire staff, provide services, convert paper medical records to electronic ones and add exam rooms.

"This expansion is something we're really looking forward to because we can finally see more people," said Brian Toomey, chief executive of Piedmont Health Services Inc., a nonprofit company that operates centers in Burlington, Carrboro, Moncure, Prospect Hill and Siler City.

Piedmont Health Services Inc., Carrboro Health Center, community health center Patient loads at health centers expected to double

More people are expected to seek care as health coverage expands under the reform effort to previously uninsured individuals and families. With a national shortage of primary care doctors, Toomey and others predict that many of those new patients will show up at community health centers, which have traditionally cared for many patients on limited budgets.

"There's going to be continued need for cost containment for all new patients coming into the system that haven't been seen," he said.

Patients at Piedmont Health's six clinics pay for services based on their income. Of the 38,000 patients seen in the company's clinics last year, 21,000 were uninsured.

"The only people we turn away are people we can't see because we don't have enough room to see all the people who want to see us," Toomey said.

Carrboro Community Health Center sees 110 patients on an average day, and officials said that number will likely double in five years.

"If we double the number of patients, we'll have to double the number of providers," Toomey said, adding that Piedmont Health hopes to get several hundred thousand dollars from the $1 billion the government will award this fall.

Della Atwater, who has insurance but has sought medical care at the Carrboro clinic for more than a decade, said she hopes more people will be able to take advantage of the clinic's services in the future.

"I've always received good care here – good, quality care," Atwater said. "No matter what their status is in life ... everyone deserves quality health care."

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