National Health Center Week 2020 came to a close this past Sunday. However, the purposeful work of increasing awareness about primary care services that community health centers — like The Wright Center for Community Health — collectively offer to our region and our nation never stops and, truly, has never been more important.

Substantial parts of Northeast Pennsylvania are recognized by our federal government as medically underserved areas with notable physician shortages. The needs of these communities fuel the work done by The Wright Center. My colleagues and I endeavor daily to increase same-day access to comprehensive primary care services and to engage and empower patients, families and our community. Together, we can make meaningful contributions to health care and the development of both the current and future primary care workforce. We welcome new patients of all ages at each of our nine practices in NEPA, and we are proud and grateful to have held the designation “Federally Qualified Health Center Look-Alike” since 2019.

So, what exactly are Federally Qualified Health Centers and Look-Alikes,

and what makes us unique and valuable to the communities we serve? In this

column, I’d like to shed some light on what makes an Essential Community Provider, like The Wright Center, qualify for that title.

Although the term Federally Qualified Health Centers wasn’t coined until 1989, the history of their nondiscriminatory, community-based health and social services goes back to 1965 and President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” These nonprofit primary care clinics were established in medically and socially underserved areas and maintained an “open-door” policy, providing services regardless of an individual’s insurance status or ability to pay. At these health centers, no one is ever turned away because of financial hardship.

What’s the difference between a Federally Qualified Health Center and a Look-Alike? For The Wright Center, achieving Look-Alike status was a monumental step toward our goal of becoming a full-fledged Federally Qualified Health Center, a designation that grants access to federal loan guarantees for capital improvements, grant funding for care of uninsured patients, and also Federal Tort Claims Act medical malpractice coverage.

Earning and keeping these federal titles requires hard work and passionate investment to maintain integrity, accountability and sustainability. There are substantial requirements for patient-driven governance, quality and safety as well as considerable financial responsibilities, including the reliable offering of a sliding scale fee discount program.

To ensure they remain responsive to the health and welfare needs of their community, federal health centers and their look-alikes are required to have a governing board comprised of at least 51% patients. At The Wright Center, our Community Health Board is made up of 76% of our own patients.

What is special about our community health center? We help patients overcome geographic, cultural, linguistic and other barriers to connect to comprehensive services. Our doctors and other health care and social service professionals promote whole-person care by integrating primary medical, dental, mental and behavioral health services. Our dedicated care teams include physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nurses, medical assistants, social workers, psychologists, case managers and certified recovery specialists. Wright Center Certified Community Health Workers even extend our reach beyond our practice locations by working with patients and families to make sure they are connected to necessary health and social services within our broader community.

Our mission is to offer primary health care to everyone, with special outreach to the most vulnerable and at-risk patients in our area, including those with chronic conditions, mental health and substance misuse challenges (especially pregnant women), the elderly, the isolated, and those involved with our criminal justice system. Our services have grown recently with the expansion of our community-deployed care teams, our housecall program and the addition of geriatrics and dementia specialty care.

We are also excited to announce the arrival of our new “Driving Better Health” mobile unit this fall to support our developing street medicine initiative to ensure even the most disadvantaged patients, including our region’s homeless, are getting the primary care they need and deserve.

There’s so much that Federally Qualified Health Centers and Look-Alikes offer, it’s hard to sum it up in a single column. The most important takeaway is that The Wright Center for Community Health is owned by the community that we are privileged to serve. We are here for you and your family, no matter what your background or circumstances, and, if allowed the opportunity, we will give you the best and most comprehensive

primary care possible to improve the health and welfare of our entire community and to honor the legacy of community health centers. It’s our calling, and the heart of our mission.

Linda Thomas-Hemak, M.D., a primary care physician triple board-certified in pediatrics, internal medicine and addiction medicine, leads The Wright Center for Community Health as CEO and serves as President of The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education. She lives with her family and practices primary care in Jermyn. Send your medical questions to news@thewrightcenter.org.

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