On Tuesday, February 20, the Association of Clinicians for the Underserved joined our partners at Advocates for Community Health (ACH) and the American Association of Teaching Health Centers (AATHC) for a press briefing on the crucial need to ensure long-term, sustainable funding for health centers, the National Health Service Corps, and the Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education (THCGME) Program.

As Amanda Pears Kelly, ACU Executive Director and ACH CEO, explained, health centers have “never seen these kind of concurrent challenges all at once” in terms of funding uncertainty, workforce shortfalls, and other issues.

Continued Continuing Resolutions to provisionally fund these programs actually represent cuts because of rising costs and inflation. What is needed, instead, is sustainable, multi-year investment that not only preserves but expands funding for vital health extender programs enabling care to reach millions of patients across the U.S.

Watch the recorded press briefing on Advocates for Community Health’s LinkedIn page.

Investments in Health Centers Save Money, Change Lives, and Improve Economies

Dr. Parinda Khatri, PhD, Chief Executive Officer of Cherokee Health Systems (CHS), detailed how health centers, which serve over 31 million patients every year, are “woven into the fabric of communities” such as those served by CHS in Knoxville and Chattanooga.

“It’s such a critical time for us because the demand is unprecedented,” not only in primary care but also in terms of behavioral healthcare, Dr. Khatri added.

Last year alone, CHS provided $11 million in uncompensated care, and its clinicians served 66,000 people, many of whom have no insurance and would be unable to access care elsewhere. For CHS and other CHCs like it, “we are in this pivotal moment in time where we really stepped up when the community needed us . . . and it’s absolutely critical for us to have the resources” to not only provide care but stimulate their community’s health and economy.

And as Pears Kelly explained, investment in “primary care saves dollars. For every dollar invested, it saves $13 downstream  . . . When we talk about increased investment, it saves the system billions.”

On average, CHCs generate a savings of $24 billion in annual healthcare costs, according to the National Association of Community Health Centers. As other panelists noted, health centers also go beyond their institutions’ walls to help address social determinants of health to improve the health of their communities. With such crucial human and economic stakes, the “urgency of longterm funding” for CHCs “cannot be overstated.” With the current Continuing Resolution expiring on March 8, the time to explore real legislative solutions is now.

Connecting Clinicians with Underserved Communities: the National Health Service Corps

So, too, is investment in the National Health Service Corps crucial, as it serves as a vital workforce lifeline for health centers, helping to connect underserved communities with care.

That was the case with Dr. Adrian Billings, MD, PhD, FAAFP, a Corps alumnus who spoke on the briefing about how NHSC loan repayment support “enabled me to go to medical school and to know that I could return home [to my rural frontier community in Texas] to practice.”

Like many other Corps alumni, 17 years later, he still serves his community as the Chief Medical Officer at Preventative Health Care Services (PHCS) in Alpine, TX, providing care and helping to build a pathway for new providers to care for their communities through a partnership with Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center‘s School of Medicine, where he also serves as an associate professor. The Corps was crucial in allowing health centers to better withstand COVID’s devastating impact on the workforce, which in Dr. Billings’ frontier health professional shortage area alone saw a reduction of 50% of its physician workforce.

Pears Kelly echoed these sentiments, noting that the Corps has a half-century of success, with data showing that most (at least 80 percent) of its members remain in their underserved communities after their service terms end. Furthermore, the Corps has a demonstrated success in diversifying the healthcare workforce—roughly 25% of physicians serving through the NHSC, for example, identify as Black or Latine, as compared to approximately 11% of physicians as a whole in the U.S. With thousands more clinicians needed to allow the Corps to provide a clinician field strength to meet demand in health professional shortage areas, the NHSC is already underfunded. The return on investment in the Corps, Dr. Billings explained, would be in saving or improving the lives of patients who might go without care otherwise.

Funding Bipartisan Success in Expanding the Reach of Residencies in the Teaching Health Center Program

The briefing also stressed the need to support the Teaching Health Center program. For decades, Dr. John B. Waits, MD, CEO of Cahaba Medical Care, said, medical residencies were based in hospitals, but teaching health centers arose as a “brilliant bipartisan solution” to get training programs out to rural communities.

“It’s a bipartisan program,” Dr. Waits stated, “because it’s enormously successful.”

In Alabama, for example, Cahaba Medical Care’s teaching health center program arose to address longstanding health inequities in its underserved community, delivering compassionate care to patients in community-based ambulatory care clinics instead of in large hospitals.

According to AATHC, 81 TCHGME programs in 24 states trained 1,096 residents across the country in 2023, providing one million patient visits annually in communities both in rural and urban settings. As Cristine Serrano, AATHC Executive Director noted, “there is a huge primary care provider shortage” which CHCs, teaching and otherwise, are working to address.

As “nonprofit community health centers, our margins are razor-thin because we invest back into our communities . . . Funding stability will help teaching health centers continue to do great things,” Dr. Waits added.

Concluding the briefing, Pears Kelly noted that investment in the three vital health extender programs had never been more crucial than in 2024: “Our resources are scarce, and there’s no better place to put them than in the primary care” enabled by CHCs, the National Health Service Corps, and Teaching Health Centers.