A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

As healthcare costs rise, more Kentuckians relying on community health centers for medical care

By Nadia Ramlagan
Public News Service

One community health center in eastern Kentucky is reflecting on its 14 years serving rural residents, regardless of their ability to pay or insurance status.

Karen Ditsch runs Juniper Health, a community health center in Lee County, one of 24 federally funded health centers in the state.

She says before her clinic in Beattyville opened, residents had to travel long distances to visit a doctor, dentist or mental health specialist.

In 2017, more than 400,000 Kentuckians visited a community health center. (Photo from Adobe Stock, via PNS)

“I can remember very vividly, and I can see it in my mind, people literally coming through the door and crying, because they realized, number one, we’re here to serve everybody that walks through our doors, regardless of their ability to pay, and that we have a sliding fee scale that was affordable to them,” Ditsch relates. “Some of these folks in their 40s and 50s were receiving health care for the first time in their lives.”

The number of Kentuckians visiting clinics such as Juniper Health has swelled, mirroring a nationwide trend.

Next year, an estimated one in 12 Americans will seek care at a community health center.

Federal funding for health centers will expire at the end of September unless it’s renewed by Congress.

Last month, a group of health center advocates from Kentucky flew to Washington to press Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other congressional leaders to extend funding before the deadline.

There is bipartisan support among congressional leaders for pending legislation that would funnel $4 billion to community health centers across the country.

Ditsch says consistent funding helps to ensure her clinic can retain and hire health care professionals, and points out that Juniper Health has been a source of jobs and economic stability in Lee County.

“We employ 100 people, and we started years ago – 14 years ago – with 17 people, so we’ve really added to the economy in these small communities,” she states.

According to the latest data, more than 400,00 patients in the Commonwealth receive health care at community health centers, including children, the homeless and veterans.

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