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Community Health Centers Are Fighting on the Front Lines of the Opioid Crisis

The nation’s 1,400 community health centers, which know their populations’ health needs best, are on the front lines of the fight against the opioid epidemic.

I met a woman recently, at a community health center in Washington, D.C., whose story, like so many others, highlights how the right supports can help Americans struggling with opioid addiction get back on their feet and to be healthy again.

She was dependent on opioids and had gotten sick and could not work, so she lost her job and then her housing. She thought the world was gone for her, but then she walked into the health center.

The staff took care of her, and a physician got her into a substance abuse program.

She did so well, the center gave her an opportunity to work there as a peer support specialist working with patients who had the same problems with substance addiction.

She was a reborn person. “If I did it, anybody can do it,” she said.

I met another woman who had been suicidal, without hope—until she walked through the doors of a health center in New Hampshire. She also got help for her substance use disorder, and the center’s community partners helped her get employment and housing.

The nation’s 1,400 community health centers, operating over 11,000 clinical sites, are a remarkable partnership between the federal government and the private sector. They know the health needs of their communities best. And no matter who walks through the door, they will be seen and cared for, regardless of their ability to pay.

These centers, supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration at HHS, have a long tradition of providing healthcare to our most vulnerable neighbors. But today, they are also on the front lines of the opioid epidemic that is ravaging so many communities. They play an important role in supporting uninsured and under-insured people with substance use disorders.

These centers were established as primary care centers, but the needs of the people and the communities are always changing and expanding. Substance abuse is a huge problem for the entire nation.

I’ve spoken with many providers at community health centers, and they’re very excited about being able to provide care for people struggling with opioid addiction and other substance use disorders.

At first, they were hesitant because they didn’t think they had enough resources to do the job right, and because they feared the centers might suffer from a stigma related to drug addiction. What I heard was “We are a family-oriented primary care center. What will happen if people know we’re dealing with substance abuse?”

But one of the main focuses of the nation’s fight against the opioid crisis is to fight the stigma that keeps people from seeking treatment, and health centers and community providers understand that as well as anyone. Everybody’s talking about the opioid epidemic now and the need to face it head on.

We’re not sweeping it under the rug. We know that it doesn’t matter the location, the economic status of the patient, the age, the gender—everybody’s affected.

HRSA has been increasing support to the centers to help them integrate mental health and behavioral health with primary care. Last year, HRSA awarded $200 million to health centers to increase access to substance use disorder services. This week, we awarded nearly $400 million to health centers, especially to rural centers, to increase access to and improve the quality of substance use disorder services.

Today, more than 90 percent of centers provide mental health services, and more than 70 percent provide substance use disorder services.

The new grants include $352 million to expand access to substance use disorder and mental health services to more than 1,200 health centers across the nation, to help them implement and advance evidence-based strategies that best meet the needs of their communities. Another $18.5 million is being awarded to support partnerships between 21 academic institutions and 54 health centers to increase the number of professionals and paraprofessionals with real-life training to deliver integrated behavioral health and primary care services in communities with high rates of opioid addiction and overdose.

HRSA is also investing millions of dollars in rural organizations to develop and implement innovative, evidence-based strategies to increase access to substance addiction prevention and treatment services to rural populations that have been disproportionately impacted by the opioid epidemic and face special challenges compared with individuals in urban areas. 

We’re trying to be more innovative so we can reach more people who have no easy access to care for behavioral health, mental health, and substance use disorders.

This is not simply a one-year initiative. We’ll continue the support; we’re not stopping here. Our focus, community health centers’ focus, is to reach out to people—and we’ll continue supporting everyone in need until we have defeated our country’s addiction crisis.

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