- The Biden administration is awarding almost $55 million to community health centers to implement telehealth, digital patient tools and health information technology in underserved communities.
- The pot will be distributed between 29 health centers funded by HHS' Health Resources and Services Administration, HHS said Monday. It builds on more than $7.3 billion in funding from the American Rescue Plan passed in March that's already been sent out to community health centers over the past year to help mitigate COVID-19's impact.
- HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said Monday at the National Association of Community Health Center's annual policy meeting that the Biden administration would continue to "step up" to assist the centers, which provide care to mostly low-income Americans, including working with Congress to try to double their funding.
The pandemic caused the use of virtual care to skyrocket, as patients clamored for digital access to their physicians amid lockdowns and access soared due to more flexible regulations from Washington. As a result, providers — including federally-funded community health centers — quickly built out their virtual care capabilities.
Such centers saw their number of virtual visits grow from roughly 480,000 in 2019 to 28.6 million in 2020. In addition, the number of health centers offering telehealth more than doubled from 2019 to 2020, HHS said.
Becerra said virtual care has proved a game-changer for patients, and the new funding will help health centers implement the latest technologies to expand access to primary care for underserved communities. Virtual care, which can help medical providers reach people regardless of location or income, should be provided by community health centers as much as possible, the secretary said.
"We want community health centers to be in on that game," Becerra said Monday. The Biden administration's goal with the funding is to help centers invest in telehealth, allowing them to provide virtual care beyond the scope of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
Though federal restrictions on virtual care access have been eased temporarily over the past two years, many will be reinstated once the PHE expires without action from Congress. However, codifying telehealth flexibilities has bipartisan support, and action on the Hill this year is likely as a number of bills have been proposed that would remove some of the barriers to telehealth.
HRSA is awarding a total of $54.6 million in one-time funding to 29 health centers to "develop, implement, and evaluate" strategies that would use virtual care to increase access and improve clinical quality for underserved communities and vulnerable populations, and that can be scaled across other health centers.
This round of funding is headed to six centers in California; five in New York; two each in the states of Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois and Massachusetts; and one each in Arizona, Connecticut, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Nevada, Puerto Rico and Washington.
Currently, there are more than 1,400 HRSA-supported health centers in the U.S. that provide medical, dental and behavioral health services to almost 29 million at-risk patients each year. More than 90% of those patients are living at or below 200% of the federal poverty line, while about 62% are racial or ethnic minorities.
The community-based centers have been a key prong in the public health response to COVID-19. As of late January, health centers have delivered more than 19.2 million vaccine doses, with the majority going in the arms of racial or ethnic minority patients, according to HHS. There's some evidence that work is paying dividends, as one analysis suggests there have been fewer COVID-19 infections and deaths in areas with an active community health center.
Despite the billions in funding from the ARP, community health centers — which are chronically underfunded even not in a pandemic year — have called for more aid over COVID-19.
In his proposed budget for the 2022 fiscal year, President Joe Biden committed to working with Congress to double the federal investment in community health centers. It's an effort the president still backs, but is being mired in Congress as the legislature debates its budget for the existing fiscal year, Becerra said.
"He wants to double that amount of funding and we're with him and we'd like to see that happen, and then we hit reality which is called Congress," Becerra told NACHC on Monday. The legislature has not yet passed a budget for the 2022 fiscal year, funding the government instead since October through a stopgap measure freezing funding at last year's levels.
The secretary noted it's unclear how much money Congress will finally allocate for community health centers, though there's talk the body has reached a framework deal on providing full-term funding for the remainder of the fiscal year.
"Stay tuned," Becerra said.