It’s a time of significant change in Massachusetts as, for the first time in nearly a decade, there are open races for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General and State Auditor. Add to that a contested race for Secretary of State and many of the seats in the 200-person state Legislature and we have a ripe time for big ideas at a critical time in our Commonwealth’s history just as we start to think about what’s best and what’s possible in a post-pandemic world.
As community health leaders throughout the Commonwealth, we wanted to make sure the issues we lay out here are a part of the conversations happening in living rooms, backyard barbecues, on social media and across the airwaves as you, the leaders running for these offices, chart the course forward for Massachusetts.
We run Community Health Centers in Massachusetts and, combined, serve more than one million Bay Staters each year. We provide access to high quality care to patients across the Commonwealth, but we are so much more than that.
We are a critical component of the health care delivery system across the board. And we don’t just mean because we provide everything from primary medical care to dental, behavioral health, optometry, pharmaceutical and nutrition care, but because of the critical cog we are in the wheel of healthcare in the United States.
You see, we care for all individuals regardless of their ability to pay. Many of our patients are at, or below, the poverty level and are in at risk populations. Some health centers have as many as 30 percent of their patients without any insurance at all. But we see them anyway because that’s our job. Often, we are the only thing that stands between our patients and using the emergency room for primary care.
So imagine for a second that we were in March of 2020 and there were no community health centers and the COVID-19 pandemic hit. What would have happened? The million Massachusetts residents who went to our health centers would have been clogging the emergency rooms (ER) across the state at a time when we needed the exact opposite. Eventually they would have been coming in just for wellness checks or common illnesses. Or they wouldn’t, which would then lead to two years’ worth of delayed health checks and illnesses left unaddressed. Without us, the system would have ground to a halt under the weight of the nearly 15 percent increase of ER patients.
Going into March of 2020, we, as health care providers, believed that this could be the finest hour for community health centers. We were right.
For almost two years now, local and state leaders and every health care organization and provider have been singularly focused on fighting COVID-19. The virus has monopolized every conversation and resource across the Commonwealth. In fact, everyone can’t wait to “get back to normal.” But what about coming out of this BETTER than normal? By focusing on the right investments — that’s exactly what we have the opportunity to do.
Community health centers aren’t just about health care delivery, they are about looking out for the families we serve and working to address the social determinants of health that impact them so fundamentally.
A person with a job is a healthier person.
A person with housing stability is a healthier person.
A person with the benefit of education or training is generally a healthier person.
A person with access to food security and a clean environment is a healthier person.
A person with transportation to a job, school, a grocery store, or even a health center, is a healthier person.
We need you to be a leader for the whole of the Commonwealth and for the common wealth. If we care for those most in need the benefits are immeasurable, not just in their growth and success but in unseen benefits for us as a society. All community health centers seek to do is help make a more perfect union for us all.
So we need you to focus on this:
Give everyone access to a good education. This means from birth through their lives. There are many ways to get there, but don’t let the fight get in the way of the right that people have in this Commonwealth to a good education.
Provide access to housing. Build a strong homeless shelter structure that doesn’t separate people from families or jobs to live in motels in food deserts. Increase vouchers for rental assistance, add to the affordable housing stock and give communities better incentives to build more rather than fight any. Create market rate housing, more favorable home ownership programs and tax incentives for people looking to purchase their first home or age gracefully in their last one.
Expand educational loan repayment opportunities. A strong education system with loan repayment opportunities to incentivize staying in our Commonwealth will create more dependability in the workforce. We need manufacturers of clean energy products as much as we need the research scientists. We need to build up vocational technical opportunities to create the jobs that our economy needs in the next decade.
Increase food security, now. People should not be starving in Massachusetts and far too many, including an estimated 1 in every 11 children, experience hunger every day. We need a moonshot approach to eliminating food insecurity in the Commonwealth.
True health care for all. We must continue to find new and creative ways to increase access to care for our neighbors, family, friends, colleagues and complete strangers, regardless of their ability to pay. And we need a health care system that covers the TOTAL cost of care and doesn’t force people to choose between paying their bills and maintaining their health.
The support of the federal, state and local elected and appointed officials played a big role in our survival during this pandemic. The current administration and state lawmakers have enacted historic rate increases for community health centers. Along with recent investments in the health center workforce, and support from the federal government, the Commonwealth has realized that a network of strong, efficient, and effective community health centers is a cornerstone of Massachusetts’ future. But if we don’t take this once in a lifetime chance at seismic systemic change NOW then what did it all mean?
Be a leader for the common wealth and you will be a great leader for Massachusetts.
Stephen J. Kerrigan, President & CEO, Kennedy Community Health Center (Worcester, Framingham, Milford)