Supporting community health centers during a pandemic

In western Colorado, River Valley Family Health Centers serves 6,000 people a year at three clinics. It’s a rural region where going to see a doctor might mean traveling through one or two mountain passes. 

Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) like River Valley are an important foundation for health care in the United States, particularly for vulnerable communities. By providing access to care for 1 in 12 Americans, regardless of their ability to pay, oftentimes these centers serve as the only resource for comprehensive services in underserved communities.

And like other health care institutions, as routine services have decreased due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these centers have been under financial stress with a large reduction of people coming through their doors. River Valley, for example, went from seeing 130 patients a day to just 40. 

“In many cases, FQHCs may only have two to three weeks of cash on hand, meaning an ongoing societal shutdown could have long-term, negative impacts on this part of the health care system,” said Catherine Anderson, senior vice president of Policy and Strategy for UnitedHealthcare.

In light of this urgent need for funding, UnitedHealthcare has provided $20 million through a Transformation Investment program to FQHCs. The program will provide funding to more than 300 FQHCs, which serve more than 830,000 members, giving these organizations a bridge to continue offering needed services.

“The Transformation Investments will allow health centers to focus their resources on specific populations and services that they have determined their communities need,” said Amy Simmons, associate vice president of media relations at the National Association of Community Health Centers. “These investments will be critical to ensuring their communities have access to vital primary and preventive care, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

With these Transformation Investments, FQHCs can assign the funds for one of four populations to receive increased funding. These include:

  • Healthy children 
  • Healthy pregnancy
  • People living with chronic conditions
  • Integrating behavioral and physical health

In this new landscape of the pandemic, the investment payments may also assist FQHCs in accelerating telehealth technology, a crucial step to continue their mission of expanding access to quality health care. 

For River Valley, beyond expanding their telehealth capabilities, the funding allowed them to hire a registered nurse to handle chronic care management for patients, particularly for those with diabetes and hypertension.

“We took a step back and one of our biggest fears was (losing connection with) those patients that truly need to be seen for chronic conditions,” said Jeremy Carroll, CEO of River Valley Family Health Centers.

The funding also allowed the center to provide a critical need for those they serve, as food insecurity continues to be a major concern during the pandemic. River Valley opened a full food pantry in one location and made food donations available in another.

On a broad level, the transformation initiative hopes to not just help FQHCs to weather the current pandemic — but thrive with new opportunities to serve the people they care for, understanding these vulnerable populations may be impacted to a greater degree. 

“We need a lot of grace with each other,” Jeremy said, “and compassion.”