Centers for health — and much more

Dorchester is home to the nation’s first urban community health center: Columbia Point’s Geiger-Gibson Health Center was founded by a pair of namesake doctors in 1965. Today, our community is home to a network of  not-for-profit health centers that drives innovation, economic opportunity, and, of course, health care all across the community.

As National Health Center Week begins this weekend – observed August 8-14- it’s fitting to make special note of the vital contribution that community health centers make to the quality of life, in our neighborhoods.Across the state, a network of 52 community health centers provides care for some 800,000 residents. Dorchester and Mattapan are home to such facilties, at Bowdoin Street, Codman Square, Dorchester House, Geiger-Gibson, Mattapan, Neponset, and Uphams Corner. Each provides essential health care services every day, serving as vital economic engines for their individual villages.

In addition to delivering primary health care, consider these other contributions of the health centers:

• Codman Square has spun off a tech center, fitness center, even a charter school, among many other projects since its foundation in the late 1970s;

• Mattapan will soon construct a new $32 million facility, helping to revitalize Mattapan Square;

• Harbor Health Services, which operates both Neponset and Geiger-Gibson, recently completed a $14 million revitalization of a closed Morton Street nursing home, and more than doubled the capacity of its Elder Services program;

• Dorchester House in Fields Corner sponsors a farmer’s market and hosts a range of programs, from swim lessons to classes on how to be a better dad;

• Uphams Corner pioneered the delivery of lower-cost medicine in the 1990s and continues to be a critically important facility on Columbia Road;

• The Bowdoin Street health center, with its many outreach programs through the years, is a vital social service outpost in the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood.

Envisioning life on this side of the city without the services of any one of these centers is a frightening proposition. But the fact is that health centers are in a precarious position. Health care reform in Massachusetts has increased the numbers of insured people, but as many as 10 percent of the patients at Codman Square, for instance, remain uninsured. And without a free care pool to compensate the centers that serve a disproportionate amount of people in our neighborhoods, the health centers have taken a big hit to their bottom line.

Worse, finances at Boston Medical Center, which help fund several of them, have also been decimated by the new payment regimen and threaten to negatively impact the delivery of health care here in our neighborhoods in the months and years to come.

Historically, health center advocates turned to the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy to secure needed federal support. With the loss of this great champion, there is increased concern among local health center leaders that these critical funds will be harder to sustain.

Today, as we celebrate the accomplishments of all our community health centers, it’s important to communicate to our elected officials the urgent nature of the potential negative impacts to our neighborhoods. It is our hope that political leaders will re-double their efforts to support the mission of these critically important health care centers.

– Bill Forry