What defines a community? Safe housing, reliable transportation, educational opportunities, access to healthy food, quality healthcare? At the Illinois Primary Health Care Association, we believe it’s all of those things, and more, from whole-person, accessible health care.

Community health centers across Illinois, from our largest cities to our most rural areas, witness every day the challenges experienced by their patients. We’ve known this for years, but the pandemic has put an important spotlight on a glaring truth: In our underserved communities, high-quality, affordable health care is desperately needed — now more than ever.

This spring, we’re taking action at the Illinois State Capitol. In a recent run of strong state revenues, Illinois leaders have repeatedly and generously invested in core health care services and social service programs. And have been grateful for prioritizing community health centers.

We are now urging the Illinois Legislature to continue investing in community health centers through two important initiatives.

First, we focused on behavioral health care, which is a combination of mental health services and substance use treatment. Behavioral health services are a priority at every health center. Yet, despite recent advances, nearly 10 million Illinoisans live in a shortage area for this vital care.

Senate Bill 1816 and House Bill 3049, sponsored by state Sen. Ann Gillespie and state Rep. Theresa Mah, expand the list of providers to include graduate-level, subclinical behavioral health professionals practicing under licensed physicians. This legislation would allow health centers across Illinois to hire 175 new providers, serve an estimated 72,000 new patients and offer new, much-needed services.

Second, community health centers are grossly underfunded despite federal law decades ago calling for specific funding to address Medicaid shortfalls because when that system was created, Medicaid covered about 70 percent of the cost of providing patient care. Today, despite that fixed funding system, our Medicaid reimbursements cover about 60 percent of our costs. More needs to be done to increase reimbursement for care at community health centers—the largest network of primary care providers in underserved communities.

Our rate hike legislation is Senate Bill 1888 and House Bill 2298, sponsored by State Sen. Robert Peters and State Rep. Anna Moller. By passing this legislation, community health centers could serve an additional 180,000 patients each year, hire about 250 more providers, and increase spending on substance use treatment, dental services, transportation, vision care and more by $100 million — which $50 million in To be covered by federal cost sharing.

To drive the point home even further, community health centers in our neighboring states receive reimbursement rates that are about 80 percent higher than the rate in Illinois. This means that for every $100 our centers receive in reimbursement, health centers in these states receive roughly $180. And in behavioral health care, our rates are often one-third the amount of some of our neighbors — hampering our ability to meet the demand for care.

If we’ve learned anything during the pandemic, it’s that if our neighbors are healthy, we’re all healthier. Together, these two sensible measures will enable more people to get the care they need to live well and better equip our communities to thrive.

Ollie Idowu, President and CEO, Illinois Primary Health Care Association

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