A new analysis reports on the experience of the nation’s community health centers over the past year, and highlights health centers’ accomplishments in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the challenges that they face as the pandemic continues and the nation seeks to recover.

Utilizing data from the Health Resources and Services Administration’s (HRSA’s) weekly Health Center COVID-19 Survey, the authors document how health centers rose to meet the challenges of the public health emergency, adding diagnostic testing and vaccine capacity and rapidly adapting to telehealth to maintain services and address patient needs. Nearly 99 percent of health centers now offer diagnostic testing and together, by April 2021, community health centers had provided COVID-19 testing to nearly 9.7 million patients, most of whom are racial/ethnic minorities. With the introduction of vaccines, health centers were rapidly engaged to reach the hardest-hit communities. Three in four health center staff members and one in 14 patients (7 percent) had completed their COVID-19 vaccinations as of April 2nd, 2021, with the pace of vaccination increasing rapidly and racial/ethnic minority patients accounting for majority of those vaccinated. Still, despite their overall resiliency and success in adding testing, adapting their services, gearing up for and now providing vaccines, health centers have been operating at reduced capacity since the pandemic began. The year-long loss in patient visits has translated into ongoing and substantial patient revenue losses estimated at $5.163 billion nationwide over 12 months, an amount that represents 16.4 percent of total revenue reported nationally in 2019.

The historic American Rescue Plan investment will boost resources for COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, infrastructure and workforce, helping community health centers to provide essential access in communities hardest-hit by the pandemic and restore and expand capacity over time. Questions still remain about how health centers can fully recover given the steep financial losses, and what infrastructure, regulatory and reimbursement support will best aid health centers in responding to remaining and new challenges and maintaining the successes they achieved during the pandemic. Still, the findings demonstrate that health centers can effectively adapt and rapidly use federal investments to meet the needs of their patients and communities and will be central to the nation’s recovery.

The report is part of the signature policy series produced by the Geiger Gibson/RCHN Community Health Foundation Research Collaborative at Milken Institute School of Public Health.
Download the report.