For more than two decades, Central Counties Health Centers has offered accessible, affordable health care to many of central Illinois’ most vulnerable residents. And if the deadly COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced anything, it’s that community health centers like Central Counties are a whole-health lifeline to people in need.
“We work with a lot of people who have those social determinants of health, those things outside of medical and dental, that affect the whole health of a human being. We help with food insecurity, transportation, housing issues. Even things like people needing an ID because they need to get a job,” said Heather Burton, CEO of Central Counties.
“Many times, people will come in to see a doctor, and a doctor will identify that they have issues outside of just needing to see a doctor. Our patient navigator builds a relationship with the patient to help address those things that affect their overall well-being.”
Central Counties is a federally qualified health center based in Springfield. It has satellite locations in Jacksonville and Taylorville and employs about 100 people with an annual operating budget of $10 million.
The center offers primary medical, dental, and behavioral health care for adults and children, most of whom are on Medicaid. Patients who are uninsured or choose to pay out of pocket are charged sliding-scale fees based on income. It also offers a prescription discount program to help patients afford their medications.
Operating in a pandemic posed challenges for Central Counties, whose primary goal was to continue serving patients, even as people were told to stay home or became afraid to venture out to visit the doctor. The center quickly pivoted to telehealth as an avenue for serving patients from the comfort of their own homes.
Patients gradually have been coming back to the center for safe in-person visits. Proper screenings for COVID-19 symptoms are key.
“If they come here and have symptoms, we ask them to go to their car and we’ll do a telephone visit and go forward from there. Many times, it takes our patients a lot of effort to get here, so we don’t want to just send them home because they have a stuffy nose,” Burton said.
“We work through it all the time around here. Our goal is basically how can we continue to provide the best possible care to our patients while reducing the risk of exposure to our staff members. That’s the balance we’re trying to achieve.”
Burton worries about patients who have not connected with their doctors during the pandemic or skipped appointments for wellness visits and checks for diabetes and hypertension. When they do return to the doctor, it’s possible their health will have deteriorated.
She also worries about increases in mental health issues, food insecurity, substance abuse, and unemployment in the community.
And, of course, she worries about Central Counties’ youngest patients. During the pandemic, many parents stopped bringing in children for immunizations and wellness checks. It’s during appointments like these that providers often can spot signs of abuse.
“Right now, it’s just a matter of encouraging people to come in for their appointments,” she said. “If they cancel, we can follow up with a phone call and say, ‘You may not feel comfortable coming in, but let’s make an appointment for a phone call at least.’”
For Burton, the pandemic has underlined what she knew all along: the staff at Central Counties Health Centers are superheroes.
“It’s just confirmed over and over that we’re here for a reason and we do a good job. We’re going to get through this, and we may look a little bit different on the other end. That’s OK,” she said.
“If you look at the positives, this is really helping us focus on what we’re really here for, which is making health care accessible to our patients and being a kind and compassionate place people can trust and rely on.” ■