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Over the past two decades in my role as CEO of Missouri Primary Care Association (MPCA), I have witnessed the remarkable impact of Community Health Centers throughout our state. But the past year and a half has been like nothing I have seen before.

COVID-19 ushered in a host of new challenges for everyone, and for none more so than the most vulnerable among us. In this time, Community Health Centers and their staff responded quickly to changing demands — serving patients in new ways by providing COVID-19 testing, treatments, vaccines, and education all while continuing the essential care that over 600,000 of Missourians count on.

In fact, in partnership with the state, Community Health Centers have played — and will continue to play — a crucial role in COVID-19 testing and vaccine rollout, connecting thousands of Missourians to resources they likely would not have otherwise received.

After such success, it seems quite appropriate to spend time celebrating these accomplishments, especially during National Health Center Week, recognized this Aug. 8-14. Once a year, National Health Center Week shines a light on the key contributions that Community Health Centers make to their local communities.

In Missouri, Community Health Centers serve more than 600,000 people and provide 2.2+ million encounters each year. This improves access to care for thousands of Missourians regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay. In fact, over 70 percent of their patients have family incomes at or below 100 percent of the poverty level. These are medically underserved communities who, even if insured, could remain isolated from traditional forms of care because of where they live, who they are and the language they speak.

Not only do Community Health Centers provide cost-effective care to the people who need it most, but they improve health equity and save lives. Patients who visit tend to be more at-risk, have more complex health care needs and have higher rates of chronic conditions than the general population. Since the start of Community Health Centers in the mid-1960s, mortality rates amongst all age groups have decreased, including for infants and adults over 50.

The role of Community Health Centers is crucial, which is why I’ve dedicated my career to this work. I’ve seen first-hand how they lift up communities and connect people with the care and resources they need to live healthy and happy lives — which has only become more apparent throughout the pandemic.

While National Health Center Week is a meaningful opportunity to honor Community Health Centers, we truly do believe one week could never be enough. The patients, providers, and partners who make up our Community Health Centers mean everything to us and play a crucial role in our collective success. Their roles, no matter how big or small, allow us to provide high-quality care to Missourians who need it most and improve the quality of life for tens of thousands of Missourians along the way.

Learn more about Missouri’s Community Health Centers at mo-pca.org.

Joe Pierle is the CEO of Missouri Primary Care Association.

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