The newly opened Berks Community Health Center, at 838 Penn Street in Reading, received a welcome boost Wednesday, June 20.
Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, announced that the center will be a federally qualified health center.
“Reading needs a comprehensive family health center that is accessible and affordable,” said Art Grim, co-chairman of the Berks Community Health Center board and a Berks County Court of Common Pleas senior judge.
The Berks center is one of only 219 organizations across the nation that received grant awards this year and one of five in Pennsylvania.
Berks Community Health Center is the only federally qualified health center in Berks County.
The center qualifies for an annual $650,000 grant and immediate federal status, two key ingredients that will help it quickly offer greater access to primary and preventive health care.
Federally qualified health centers are independent, community-based organizations that receive higher levels of Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement for providing primary-care services in targeted underserved areas.
The opportunity for a higher level of reimbursement means more patients will be able to receive high-quality care without financial burden to themselves or the community,” Grim said.
The federally qualified centers also offer services such as dental and mental-health care, on site or in collaboration with other organizations.
The Berks Community Health Center opened June 4 at the site of the former Reading Health Dispensary.
It is run by a nonprofit board comprised of community members and center patients.
Opening the center was the culmination of years of collaboration by community groups, area hospitals and government and political leaders, said Gary Rightmire, co-chairman of the center board and retired Berks County Department of Public Welfare executive.
“The FQHC designation is great news for Reading and for the entire county,” he said. “Today’s thrilling news gives BCHC the ability to hit the ground running. We were opening our doors on June 4, with strong financial support from the Reading Hospital, along with other community groups. Now, with FQHC status, our momentum will be even greater.”
The Affordable Care Act [“Obamacare”] provided $9.5 billion to expand health services over five years and $1.5 billion to support construction and renovation projects at community health centers.
The number of patients served by community health centers is expected to grow by about 1.3 million nationally over the next two years.
Any county resident can designate BCHC as their primary care provider, whether they are uninsured, privately insured, or covered by Medicare and Medicaid.
BCHC has a sliding scale fee structure, based on federal poverty guidelines, making primary healthcare affordable to all.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Reading is the poorest city in the nation with nearly one-third of city residents at or below the U.S. poverty guidelines.
The formation of BCHC in October 2010 was supported by a broad group of community organizations that included the United Way of Berks County, the Berks County Community Foundation, the Wyomissing Foundation and the Berks County Medical Society, along with both area hospitals.
“At BCHC we do things differently by taking a comprehensive, long-term approach to healthcare. Our goal is to develop a sustained partnership with our patients, their families and the community,” said Mary Duden, acting center chief executive officer.
The center hopes to have 16,000 patients the first year and 32,000 the second year.
As it grows, it will offer additional services such as dental, mental health, ob/gyn and podiatry at 838 Penn St.
Officials hope to eventually expand to other Berks County communities.