Eli Saslow recently wrote a 3,500-word Washington Post story about rural healthcare in “Urgent needs from head to toe’: This clinic had two days to fix a lifetime of needs.” Although it reads like a dispatch from Doctors Without Borders in Botswana, Saslow is describing rural Meigs County TN. Rural America certainly faces significant unmet healthcare needs, but this piece has a strange omission: it doesn’t mention Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs).
The Tennessee Primary Care Association reports over 30 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) operating over 200 health clinics in the state, most in rural areas—including at least four in or near Meigs County! FQHCs are nonprofits that receive HRSA Section 330 grants to provide integrated primary care, dental care, and behavioral health services to low-income and uninsured patients. FQHCs also accept Medicaid and, in rural areas, are usually the main primary care providers, along with ERs.
Federal law requires FQHCs to provide services under a sliding-fee scale, with a nominal charge for very-low-income patients—in theory, at least, FQHCs never turn patients away due to lack of ability to pay. Similarly, federal law requires ERs to treat everyone, regardless of income and/or insurance status. Unlike ERs, however, FQHCs provide a “medical home” for patients. There are over 1,400 FQHCs, with thousands of sites, both fixed and mobile, to better reach isolated rural areas like Meigs County. We should know—we’ve written dozens of funded HRSA grants for FQHCs, including many serving rural areas like Meigs County.
The story’s hero is Rural Area Medical (RAM), a nonprofit that appears to set up temporary clinics under the free clinic model. Free clinics emerged from the runaway youth health crisis of the late 60s, starting in the Summer of Love in San Francisco—I was on the board of a free clinic over 40 years ago and understand the model well. While there are still over 1,400 official free clinic sites, free clinics largely depend on volunteer medical staff, may not accept Medicaid, and have insecure funding because they rely on donations (often from their volunteers) to keep the lights on. To operate, a free clinic must necessarily devote much of its resources away from direct services to maintaining volunteers and fundraising, like any nonprofit that depends on volunteer labor (think Habitat for Humanity).
Unlike FQHCs, free clinics patients don’t have a designated primary care provider (PCP), since a given doc or NP might be volunteering or not on a given day—like an ER, free clinic patients lack a true medical home. Free clinics aren’t generally eligible to participate in the federally subsidized 340B Discount Pharmacy Program, so patients don’t have access to long-term, low-cost medications. Free clinics, while once the only source of healthcare for many uninsured, have now mostly been overtaken by FQHCs, much as the days of the independent tutor ended with the coming of public schools. We’ve worked for a few free clinics over the years, and most were struggling to stay open and provided erratic services. Their executive directors could feel which way the wind is blowing and consequently many were trying trying to become FQHCs.
I wonder: has RAM applied to become an FQHC and open a permanent site in Meigs County? I don’t know anything about Meigs County, and it’s possible that the local FQHCs are incompetent or poorly run and could use some new competitors. HRSA just had a New Access Points (NAP) competition, with over $200 million to found and fund new sites. If the the healthcare situation is dire in Meigs County, applying for NAP grant makes much more sense than setting up shop for a weekend. Does RAM refer patients to local FQHCs? That may be a more efficacious long-term solution than the superman approach of flying in, saving the day, and flying out (imagine if education worked the same way, with itinerant teachers stopping by to give a lecture on geometry one day, Shakespeare’s sonnets the next, and the gall bladder the day after).
The original story is great as human interest, but it doesn’t go into root causes. Some consulting organization created the “Five Whys” strategy or methodology, which holds that, for any given problem, it’s often not useful to look at a single moment or cause of failure or inadequacy. Rather, systems enable failure, and for any given failure, it’s necessary to look deeper than the immediate event. Some of the other underlying problems in this story include the American Medical Association (AMA), which controls med school slots, and the individual medical specialty associations, which control residency slots. The U.S. has been training too few doctors and doing an inadequate job getting those doctors into residency for decades. Detail on this subject is too specific for this piece, but Ezekiel Emanuel has a good article on the subject; med school needs to be integrated with undergrad and needs a year lopped off it. The way medical training works right now is too expensive and too long, creating physician shortages—especially in the places that need physicians most. The supply-demand mismatch raises the costs of physician services and mean that physicians charge more for services than they otherwise would.
Rural areas have also faced decades of economic headwinds, with young adults moving to job centers, leaving an aging-in-place population that needs many support services; declining tax base from manufacturing leaving for emerging countries; the opioid epidemic; and so on. While I wouldn’t expect Saslow to fully cover such factors, context is missing and at least a passing reference to FQHCs would make sense.