SALT LAKE CITY — Another way the Affordable Care Act is expanding access to health care is by funding community health centers across the country.
Utah has 11 of those community health centers, operating 42 clinics that served 115,410 patients last year.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday announced $2.4 million coming to Utah to support three health center sites in the state — Salt Lake City, Magna and Bicknell. It is anticipated that the funds will help provide care for about 11,660 additional Utah residents.
Nationwide, 236 health center programs will receive approximately $150 million in access grant awards to serve more than 1.25 million more patients, according to the department's Health Resources and Services Administration.
The announcement comes on the heels of another more than $2 million federal funding allocation in September that paves the way for four new health center sites in Utah. The new locations intend to serve 17,000 additional residents in Vernal, South Salt Lake, Richfield and Kanosh.
New health center sites provide access to health care for individuals and families who otherwise might delay or forgo health care or seek more costly service through area hospitals and emergency rooms.
The new sites should be up and running in January.
"New health center sites provide access to health care for individuals and families who otherwise might delay or forgo health care or seek more costly service through area hospitals and emergency rooms," said Todd Bailey, executive director of Mountainlands Community Health Center.
Mountainlands, which has established health centers in Provo and Payson, will open a new clinic in Vernal. It aims to serve more than 3,300 patients in Uintah, Duchesne and Daggett counties.
The 11 already established health centers in Utah not only provide patient care at each of 30 clinics, but serve as a point of contact to get more people enrolled in health care plans, specifically offered on the federal health insurance marketplace, Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program. In fact, health centers play a key role in implementation of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Midtown Community Health Center, which has five locations and provides care to 25,000 patients annually, will soon be opening a new clinic in South Salt Lake. The clinic will serve residents who "face numerous barriers to health care access, including cost, availability of primary care physicians and language barriers," said Lisa Nichols, executive director at Midtown.
The new clinic will serve more than 4,300 residents in an area with significant health care needs.
Some certified application counselors and plan navigators, who are also funded by the federal government to help with outreach and health insurance plan enrollment, are also housed at community health centers statewide.
Since the federal insurance marketplace was launched Oct. 1, navigators have been working on getting licensed and certified and have answered questions of hundreds of clients and callers.
Few Utahns have successfully enrolled in plans, however, as the federally operated marketplace website, www.healthcare.gov, has been plagued with technical problems. The federal government has said that its site would be fully functioning by the end of November.
The Affordable Care Act, enacted in 2010, established the Community Health Center Fund that will divvy up $11 billion over a five-year period for the operation, expansion and construction of community health centers throughout the nation.
"We remain committed to providing more Utah residents with the quality patient-centered care they deserve," U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a prepared statement Thursday.
More than half of the patients served by health centers in Utah are uninsured, according to Sebelius, who said new health center sites "will increase access to those who need it most."
Since 2011, the fund has helped the country's health centers reduce health disparities for their most vulnerable patients, including low-income individuals, racial and ethnic minorities, people in rural communities and other medically underserved populations.
The network of health centers is considered one of the nation's largest safety net systems of primary and preventive care, according to Sebelius.
In the most recent federal funding allocations, Salt Lake City health center sites were awarded $721,667; Utah Partners for Health in Magna will get $775,000; and the Wayne Community Health Centers was awarded $900,000. So far, Utah has received more than $4 million from the Community Health Center Fund.
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