What Are Community Health Centers and What Services Do They Offer?

For those experiencing financial hardship, community health centers can be a godsend. Providing free or low-cost care to low-income individuals, there are hundreds of these clinics within the San Francisco Bay Area.



What Are Community Health Centers and What Services Do They Offer?

What Are Community Health Centers?

A “community health center” (CHC) is a non-profit, typically government-supported independent local clinic, sometimes called a walk-in clinic. CHCs are typically focused on under-served populations, and they offer limited medical services to the community for free or at a low cost. CHCs may be found in both urban and rural areas; an estimated total of 1,270 of these clinics are in California, and over 300 are within 40 miles of San Francisco.

The United States Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) has designated certain Medically Underserved Areas and Populations (MUAs and MUPs, respectively). These areas and populations are described as “having shortages of primary medical care, dental, or mental health providers.” A total of 175 MUAs have been identified in California, including 15 spread across 7 Bay Area counties, 6 of which are in Alameda County alone! CHCs play an especially crucial role in serving the uninsured, low-income, and immigrant populations. In 2014, 32% of all CHC patients in California were uninsured, and 53% preferred to receive care in a language other than English.

What Services Do Community Health Centers Offer?

Community Health Centers offer free and discounted services regardless of patients’ ability to pay, and charge on a sliding scale based on income. In an effort to help under-served groups such as ethnic minorities, veterans, and the homeless, these clinics offer “supportive services such as health education, translation, and transportation” and strive to “overcome geographic, cultural, linguistic, and other barriers to care.” They must also maintain compliance with the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration’s requirements.

The Health Centers recognized by the HRSA include public, private non-profit, tribal, and faith-based clinics. A high degree of local control is maintained through autonomous community-based organizations composed primarily of patients. One type of CHC is a Federally Qualified Health Center(FQHC). These clinics receive grant funding and enhanced reimbursement from Medicare and Medicaid. FQHCs must meet certain quality assurance standards, and must offer — or arrange with others to offer — the following services to all ages, regardless of health insurance status or ability to pay:

  • Preventive health services (such as immunizations, contraceptives)
  • Dental services
  • Mental health and substance abuse services
  • Transportation services necessary for adequate patient care
  • Hospital and specialty care
  • Prenatal care
  • General primary care

How Much Does a Visit Cost at a Community Health Center?

Prices at CHCs are often significantly lower than at retail and urgent care clinics. Sliding fee scales, if used, are typically based on income as a percent of the Federal Poverty Level; there will be a maximum price and a minimum price on these scales. For example, one community health clinic in Santa Rosa uses a sliding scale to charge between $25–55 for office visits, $10–20 for mental health services, and $0–10 for basic lab work. To receive discounts at CHCs, you’ll most likely need to prove your income via pay stubs, tax documents, and/or letters from your employer and/or the government.

Is a Community Health Center Right for Me?

If you need primary, urgent, dental, or mental health care and you’re experiencing financial hardship, then community health centers are a good option for you. If you’re not worried about your ability to pay, then you’re probably better off going to a regular urgent care or retail clinic so that the low-cost and free clinics can allocate more of their limited resources to the truly needy. You can read more about community health centers at Healthcare.gov and HRSA.gov. You can also search for one using SAMI-Aid.

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