By NASH NUNNERY
In his over three decades practicing medicine, Dr. Rashad Ali has worked in both private practice and the community health arena.
For a plethora of reasons, the veteran OB-GYN physician and CEO for Laurel’s Family Health Center prefers the community health center environment over the more perceived glitz of private practice.
“There is a tremendous difference in the quality of care, especially for an at-risk patient,” he said. “Here at the Center, we offer a variety of services I couldn’t offer within a private practice. We have a pharmacy, social services, pediatrics…all of those programs on one site.
“It’s been a great opportunity to see medicine from two perspectives.”
The American community health center concept originated in the Mississippi Delta over a half-century ago. When President Lyndon Johnson and the federal government established the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, medical and civil rights activists used the opportunity to create public systems that could reduce disparities in health care for the underserved.
Ground zero for the evolutionary concept was the Tufts-Delta Health Center (now Delta Health Center) in the tiny Bolivar County hamlet of Mound Bayou. A 1970 film documentary, “Out in the Rural: A Health Center in Mississippi”, captured the community health center model envisioned by the center’s founder, Dr. Jack Geiger, a young doctor working at Tufts University.
Tufts-Delta Health Center opened in 1966 and is considered the nation’s first-ever rural community health center.
“Mississippi should be proud that Bolivar County spawned rural community health centers nationwide,” Ali said.
The Mississippi Primary Health Care Association is the non-profit membership organization for the state’s 20 community health care centers. Established in 1981, the MPHCA oversees care to over 280,000 patients at 190 sites in Mississippi’s underserved communities. The organization also provides training and technical assistance to its membership, including recruitment of healthcare professionals, educational activities, and national and state-based advocacy.
Jackson boasts the largest number of CHC sites with 50, supported by two community health centers. There are 41 sites in Hattiesburg.
MPHCA Chief Executive Officer Janice Sherman said community health centers are “a movement” that regularly attract sdoctors, nurses and other medical staffers that want to make a difference for the patients they serve.
“There are challenges in recruiting for medical personnel but community health centers draws people who have a calling,” she said. “One of our biggest challenges is telling our story. The way we tell our story is crucial. I believe our member CHCs are the best kept secrets in the nation.
“But we’re also doing a better job giving our CHCs the credibility they deserve.”
Ali, who also serves as the MPHCA’s board president, said attracting quality physicians and nurses is one thing – retaining them is another.
“Recruiting (to community health centers) is a big challenge – (patient-wise), we see all ‘comers,’ both underserved and uninsured,” he said. “But when all factors are considered, I think the CHC benefits package comes very close to what is offered in private practice, and we are on our way to matching [benefits and compensation].”
For every dollar invested by the State of Mississippi into the community health center program, Sherman estimates a return of $25 to the state’s economy. She says the CHC system is an economic engine and a boon to Mississippi communities, large and small.
“There is exponential economic value for Mississippi, in that there are over 1,700 jobs created by CHCs, not to mention facilities for the 190 sites supported by the 20 community health care centers,” she added.
In 2016, the MPHCA conducted an external stakeholder survey to evaluate perceptions of Mississippi community health centers. Nearly 60 percent of respondents stated the state’s CHCs “purpose and services meet community health needs”.
Sherman isn’t satisfied.
“It’s not what we’re after, and part of it is getting the word out,” she said. “Our work is still cut out for us.”