Community Health Centers: Rising to Meet the Challenges of a Global Pandemic – Part One

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After a year of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, Shelley Spires, CEO of Albany Area Primary Health Care, a community health center in southwest Georgia, sat down with Draffin Tucker partner Wes Sternenberg to share her experiences.

Albany Area Primary Health Care (AAPHC) currently provides family medicine, women’s health, dentistry, podiatry, behavioral health, vision care and pharmacy services over approximately nine counties at 28 different locations. The organization employs just under 400 employees.

Shelley shares with Wes her thoughts on the role of community health centers, challenges faced during the pandemic, embracing telehealth, and the vaccine rollout.  Excerpts of their conversation follow.

Wes Sternenberg (WS):  Shelley, we appreciate you taking time out of your busy day to speak with us.  I think we’ll start off talking about community health centers in general.  What do you think is most important for people to know about community health centers?

Shelley Spires (SS):  Thank you for having me.  One of the important things about community health centers, also known as federally qualified health centers, is the fact that we provide services to the underserved, uninsured, underinsured, as well as everybody else.

 When I’m asked by a patient, “If I am moving to a new location, what do I need to do to find a new provider or primary care provider?”  My response is always, “Try to find a community health center.”  The reason being is we are held to standards that allow us to ensure our patients are getting the top quality care that they deserve and need.
The most important thing is that we try to work to move health disparities, we try to move the needle from those particular chronic illnesses.  We really pay attention to the quality of care patients get, regardless of their economic status.

WS:  I agree, completely.  Community health centers sometimes fly under the radar because of public perception, but quality of care is extremely important to continue receiving the funding that is available.

On that note, you serve individuals in both rural and urban settings.  Do you see differences in your different patient populations by location?

SS:  I would say that we must be a little more creative with the care that we give in our remote sites, because resources are not as available.  That is where we thrive.  Being a community health center is figuring out how to meet those needs with the lack of resources.

Then in our larger areas, where we do have resources, we really must press upon education, awareness, and compliance.

WS:  One of the new services that you offer is an in-house pharmacy.  Have you been able to see differences in patient outcomes as a result of opening that pharmacy?

SS:  Absolutely.  I have learned over the years that often patients do not fill their prescriptions, and therefore, medication adherence seems to slip a little whether due to negligence, lack of transportation, or it could be the cost.  With our in-house pharmacy we have the opportunity to deliver the drugs to our patients who qualify, as well as, the accessibility is easier for our patients.

We also have a 340B Drug Program where our patients can take advantage of, what I think to be, extremely discounted prescription prices.  We have seen medications go from costing some people $80 per month for blood pressure medicine to $4 per month.  That is huge, especially when many of our patients are on a fixed budget and trying to figure out how to pay for their medications.

Another good example would be a retired individual in our organization still stops by and visits me periodically.  On a recent visit he shared with me that his cardiologist had put him on this medication that had a significant out of pocket cost…several hundred dollars.  I took his prescription and his Medicare card and called the pharmacy.  We were able to get his medication cost down to $25.  So, when you go from a couple of hundred dollars to $25 – and he’s on a fixed budget for a retiree – those savings are huge.


Read Part Two here.