Closing the primary care gap for Tennesseans

Published 9:25 am Wednesday, March 8, 2023

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A new report finds seven million Tennesseans are among 100-million Americans facing barriers to accessing primary care. The report from the National Association of Community Health Centers found over 3-million people in Tennessee are medically disenfranchised and over 4-million are underserved.
Libby Thurman, CEO of the Tennessee Primary Care Association, said some patients who live in rural communities call them “healthcare deserts” with not many providers of primary care services, and added others lack insurance.
“About a third of our health center patients in our state are uninsured, that don’t have any source of health insurance coverage,” Thurman said. “And then income is also another barrier. So our patients tend to be lower income, and often could not afford to go to another provider.”
Thurman added community health centers have also faced challenges with a workforce shortage worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. With additional federal funding, health centers could open new sites, attract the workforce they need to serve additional patients, and mitigate the impact of inflation, according to the report.
Joe Dunn, senior vice-president of Public Policy and Research with the National Association of Community Health Centers, says 90% of the patients they treat at community health centers are at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, and added community health centers are critical in treating vulnerable populations. Without health centers, 15 million patients would be at risk of not having a regular source of primary care, he said.
“Children represent almost a quarter of the medically disenfranchised population that we analyzed,” Dunn said. “So obviously, as we think of, you know, starting off children on a positive foot, you know, ideally, caring for them in a very comprehensive manner to establish good habits and prevent later disease. ”
The report added 65% of health center patients come from racial and/or ethnic minority backgrounds. Dunn emphasized the pandemic elevated the work of community health centers and they served all individuals including minorities, and said they provided educational information about testing and vaccinations that were critical to the health and well-being of individuals who often would have gone without it.

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