Four counties in Western New York are among the areas of the state with the greatest need for expanded primary care resources, according to a new statewide report.
Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie and Niagara counties are among 22 counties statewide and 16 neighborhoods in the New York City identified by the Community Health Care Association of New York State in a report on community health centers, supported by the New York State Health Foundation.
Already, the eight-county region is home to four federally-qualified health centers (FQHC), with another five sites slated to open or expand in the coming months. But changes in how centers operate are vital if the health care system is expected to meet the demand created by federal health reform, said Elizabeth Swain, CHCANYS president and CEO.
"Federal health reform makes FQHCs a cornerstone of its plan for expanding access to health care because they are proven to provide high quality and comprehensive care to underserved communities," she said, adding that the existing system of health centers will need to double its capacity to serve nearly three million patients by 2015.
"If you were to ask me a year and a half ago what our need is, it would be far more severe than it is now. We've had a lot of progress," said Ann Monroe, CEO at the Health Foundation of Central and Western New York, which provided grants and assistance to help two existing centers expand and three new sites gain federal approval.
A steering committee made up of representatives from hospitals, clinics and other safety net providers is now meeting to assess more precisely the needs for the region moving forward. Once that assessment is completed later this summer, the foundation will be in a better position to know what the next set of strategies will be, Monroe said.
"We'll look where there are gaps, and where the data supports having more capacity of any type," she said.
The five new sites approved last year address each of the four counties identified in the CHCANYS study: Buffalo Community Health Center is opening a site in Lockport, its third location; while the Buffalo Neighborhood Health Center has already opened its second site, this one on Buffalo's West Side. The first site in Chautauqua County is in the development stages now, while an existing clinic in Olean is now designated as an FQHC. And in Wyoming County, Oak Orchard Community Health Center is working to convert a county health department clinic into a new access point.
FQHCs in New York provide care to 1.5 million needy individuals every year, but hundreds of thousands more could be served if productivity were enhanced and improvements were made to recruitment and retention efforts. The report projects as many as 1 million more patient visits could be possible if existing health providers adjusted the way they schedule patients, while another 800,000 patient visits could be possible if vacant health care provider slots were filled or created.
The report says more capital and assistance are needed to help providers build new sites, expand and increase access through telemedicine and mobile medical vans. And additional planning efforts at the community level are needed to complement regional planning efforts.