Illinois must now invest more in the state’s community health centers

With the state on better financial footing, the legislature could improve the lives of millions of Illinoisans by properly funding this resource.

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Esperanza Health Centers Brighton Park at 4700 S California Ave in Brighton Park, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Anthony Vazquez, Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

What defines a community? Safe housing, reliable transportation, educational opportunities, healthy food access, quality health care? At the Illinois Primary Health Care Association, we believe it is all those things, and much more, starting with whole-person, accessible health care.

Community health centers across Illinois, from our largest cities to our most rural areas, witness each of the challenges experienced by their patients every day. We have known it for years, but the pandemic put an important spotlight on a glaring truth: In our underserved communities, high-quality, affordable health care is sorely needed — now more than ever.

This spring, we are taking action at the Illinois State Capitol. In the recent run of strong state revenues, Illinois leaders have repeatedly and generously invested in core health care services and social service programs. And community health centers have been grateful to be a priority.

We are now urging the Illinois Legislature to make continued investments in community health centers through two important initiatives.

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First, we have focused on behavioral health care, which is the combination of mental health services and substance use treatment. Behavioral health services are a priority at every health center. Yet, despite recent advancements, nearly 10 million Illinoisans live in a shortage area for this critical care.

Senate Bill 1816 and House Bill 3049, sponsored by state Sen. Ann Gillespie and state Rep. Theresa Mah, expand the list of providers whose services can be reimbursed to include graduate-level, subclinical behavioral health professionals practicing under licensed clinicians. This legislation would allow health centers across Illinois to hire 175 new providers, serve an estimated 72,000 new patients, and offer new, much-needed services

Second, community health centers are drastically underfunded despite a federal law from decades ago calling for specified funding to meet shortfalls in Medicaid because at the time when that system was created, Medicaid covered roughly 70 percent of the cost of providing patient care. Today, despite that specified funding system, our Medicaid reimbursement covers only about 60 percent of our costs. More must be done to shore up reimbursement for care at community health centers — the largest network of primary care providers in underserved communities.

Our rate increase legislation is Senate Bill 1888 and House Bill 2298, sponsored by state Sen. Robert Peters and State Rep. Anna Moeller. By passing this legislation, community health centers could serve an additional 180,000 patients each year, hire nearly 250 more providers, and increase substance use treatment, dental services, transportation, vision care, and more with an infusion of $100 million — $50 million of which would be covered by federal cost sharing. 

To drive the point home further, community health centers in our neighboring states receive reimbursement rates that are roughly 80 percent higher than Illinois’ rates. That means for every $100 our centers receive in reimbursement, health centers in these states receive roughly $180. And in behavioral health care, our rate is often only one-third the amount of some of our neighbors — hindering our ability to meet the demand for care. 

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If we learned anything during the pandemic, it is that we are all healthier when our neighbors are healthier. Together, these two reasonable measures will enable more people to get the care they need to live well and better equip our communities to thrive.

Ollie Idowu, president and CEO, Illinois Primary Health Care Association

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