Community health centers face critical needs

February 23, 2023 3:00 am

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As the CEO at Heartland Health Center in Grand Island, I witness first-hand the impact our health center has in the community. Heartland is a Federally Qualified Health Center — one of seven in Nebraska and 1,400 nationally. We provide primary medical, dental and behavioral health to all, regardless of insurance status or ability to pay.

We further support our community through wraparound services such as transportation, translation, and assistance with enrolling in medical and economic assistance programs. In addition, we collaborate with partners including schools, local public health departments and community organizations to ensure that we are addressing all of the social barriers that affect our patients’ health.

Heartland Health Center opened its doors in 2014, serving 840 patients our first year. In 2021, we served 6,695 patients — a 700% increase. We have also expanded services to the town of Ravenna, providing a one-stop location for medical and behavioral health care.

In 2022, we were blessed to move to a bigger location in Grand Island, tripling the space available to serve our patients. However, our patients do not just come to us from Grand Island. People travel from as far away as North Platte, Kearney, Lexington and Broken Bow to get their health care at Heartland Health Center.

Nearly 97% of our patients have income below 200% of the federal poverty level, and 30% lack access to health insurance. For many of our patients, we are the only affordable, accessible health care provider — even if that means driving two hours for a visit.

Across the state, 12% of Nebraskans will forego health care because of cost, and nearly 17% of adults lack health insurance. If access was available, these individuals could be treated in a community health center.

Community health centers are facing financial challenges of historic nature and need funding to improve workforce and expansion into new communities. Federal COVID support kept the doors open, helped us retain staff and allowed us to safely serve our communities over the last two years, but that funding runs out in two months.

The State of Nebraska has made significant investments of state COVID relief dollars over the last two years, but health centers have been wholly excluded from those distributions. It is time to invest in our health care infrastructure and ensure statewide access to health care.

Legislative Bill 108, introduced by State Sen. Mike McDonnell, would support community health centers with one-time funding for innovation grants to expand access to care through increasing the number of health center sites across the state. LB 108 would also provide support for expanding workforce recruitment and retention efforts to alleviate the workforce strain and directly fund growing behavioral health services in every health center.

These investments in health care infrastructure are long overdue and critically needed. Funds through LB 108 would allow Heartland Health Center to expand service locations to Hastings, North Platte and beyond, eliminating the need for patients to travel long distances to seek care.

Access to high quality, affordable health care plays an integral role in the success and well-being of Nebraska’s families. While our mission is focused on the patients we serve, our impact on the community is felt far beyond the four walls of our centers. Please join me in supporting LB 108 and ensuring all Nebraskans have access to high quality health care.

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Tami Smith
Tami Smith

Tami Smith is chief executive officer of the Heartland Health Center. She previously worked in the long-term care industry, most recently as a nursing home administrator. In her last five years in the long-term care industry, she was an operations coordinator supporting 10 nursing homes. She was also instrumental in opening one nursing home and replacing older facilities in two locations. Smith has a bachelor’s degree in health care management from Bellevue University and an associate degree in health information management from College of St. Mary.