The African-American population lags behind the white population on many health indicators, like socio-economic factors, behavioral risk factors, and emergency room visits. Socio-economic factors include expected pay source for emergency room visits, median household income, families with children below poverty level, and high levels unemployment. Additionally, there are behavioral risk factors and chronic conditions like the lack of cancer screenings, and chronic disease risk factors like diabetes and asthma. Finally, emergency room visits for things like congestive heart failure, hypertension, epilepsy, osteoarthritis, dental, mental health, and alcohol/drug use are common occurrences.
COVID-19 has arrived in St. Louis and attacked the African-American community with a vengeance. As the CEO of CareSTL Health (formerly Myrtle Hilliard Davis), a federal qualified health center, we are doing all we can to get people tested and to prevent the spread. We are working under calamitous conditions, transforming our facilities for urgent operations, coping with shortages of protective equipment, limited testing kits, and staff putting themselves at risk for exposure. We have to stay on the front lines, because if we don’t, our community will go unchecked and untested.
For months, health centers like CareSTL Health have been operating under a temporary mandatory funding measure. This has made it challenging to hire providers, plan services or expand capacity. This need is especially serious because COVID-19 has made matters worse. Without resources, it is estimated that within three months over one-quarter of health centers will have exhausted funds to pay operating expenses and another 25 percent will have less than one month’s worth of cash on hand. Many health centers are already initiating staff layoffs and consolidating operations as cost-cutting measures and have shut down their dental operations. In some communities, health centers are employing telehealth to safely screen patients. The situation is dire.
According to the National Association of Community Health Centers, health centers like CareSTL Health, are experiencing severe declines in primary and preventative care visits due to a host of factors that include personal protective equipment shortages, government “stay-at-home” orders, and expectations that “non-essential” services be delayed. Estimates show that over the next six months health centers will have 34 million fewer visits, leading to $7.6 billion in lost revenue, and ultimately costing 100,500 jobs. This is the case here in St. Louis as well.
We need immediate funding from both public and private sector entities in recognition of the critical role community health centers, like CareSTL Health and others, are playing serving on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the drastic revenue losses we are experiencing as a result. If we do not test, contain, and mitigate this virus now, it will continue to spread throughout the St. Louis region.
Angela Clabon is CEO of CareSTL Health, a federal qualified health center, with four locations in the heart of North St. Louis.