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|But community health centers draw patients for a number of reasons. They offer "one-stop shopping," which can include dental care, substance abuse treatment,
pediatric and prenatal care, and social services. Most have child care and translators on site for non-English speakers.
With the new Massachusetts health insurance law boosting the number of patients seeking care, community health centers south of Boston are scrambling to meet
Sign up for: Globe Headlines e-mail | Breaking News Alerts Manet Community Health Center, which has four locations in Quincy and one in Hull, is hiring two
new family care physicians and a nurse practitioner. Brockton Neighborhood Health Center now stays open two hours later on weeknights. In February, it hired
a nurse practitioner, two medical assistants, and two social workers, and is planning to hire 20 more staff members in the next six months.
"We've seen a really significant increase in visits by new patients," said Sue Joss, executive director of the Brockton health center. "Our phones are
ringing off the hook for new patients."
The two centers are the only ones directly south of Boston. But community health centers in Fall River and New Bedford, which also serve people from this
region, are experiencing the same increase in demand, and expanding hours to meet it.
The state's universal health insurance law, which is being rolled out this year, is bringing formerly uninsured people into the healthcare system. Many of
these individuals and families are turning to community health centers, the locally based nonprofit organizations that arose from the antipoverty movement of
"We are front and center in the new healthcare legislation," said Kerin O'Toole, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers. "We've
seen quite a surge in demand. Although in many cases patients could go elsewhere, the health centers offer a whole range of services you can't get from a
The nation's first community health center opened at Columbia Point in Dorchester in 1965 as part of President Johnson's war on poverty.
Similar centers, supported by federal aid and private grants, opened across the country in poor and medically underserved areas. Today, the United States has
more than a thousand centers, 52 of them in Massachusetts.
Business is thriving. In April, the Brockton center on Main Street saw a 12 percent spike in patient visits over last year, and in May, a 9 percent increase.
A new $16 million center is under construction next to the cramped downtown facility and is scheduled to open in November.
Statewide, patient loads at community health centers have been on the rise. In 2006, centers in Massachusetts saw 760,301 patients, an increase of nearly
94,000, or 14 percent, over the previous year.
The surge in demand at community health centers with the new law was not fully expected. The centers have long been a safety net in the healthcare system -
places where people could go whether they had insurance or not. The insured usually have many choices when seeking care
Sign up for: Globe Headlines e-mail | Breaking News Alerts "People are more aware of the community health centers and the services we provide," said Sheryl
Turgeon, chief executive officer of Healthfirst, which draws patients from Fall River and nearby towns.
Community health centers also do outreach for Commonwealth Care, the new state health insurance program, and visitors to most centers can sign up for health
insurance on the spot.
The heavy promotions the state has been doing to get the uninsured to sign up and take advantage of healthcare also seems to be a factor in the increasing
number of visits, according to Toni McGuire, chief executive officer of the Manet center.
"I think one of the biggest reasons for the increase is the advertising around Commonwealth Care," McGuire said. Said Joss of the Brockton center, "There was
never this kind of publicity around the free-care pool."
In the past, institutions that treated the uninsured were compensated by a pool of money administered by the state and paid into by hospitals and other large
Another reason that community health centers are seeing more patients is that three of the four insurers working with Commonwealth Care tend to direct
subscribers to the centers, according to Alan Sager, director of the health reform program at Boston University School of Public Health.
Sager said he is concerned that some community health centers may not be able to hire physicians quickly enough to meet the demand.
"If health centers were deluged by dozens more patients every day, how quickly could they respond?" he asked.
A Massachusetts Medical Society report issued last month warned of a growing shortage of primary care physicians and some specialists, based on surveys of
doctors and Massachusetts residents.
"The community health centers rely heavily on primary care physicians, and if there is a shortage in the state, the centers would be exposed to that
shortage," said B. Dale Magee, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society.
So far, directors of centers south of Boston say they have been able to hire qualified staff and otherwise meet the demands of new patients - in part by
The Manet center recently purchased the building it had been renting in North Quincy and is eyeing expansion on the site. The center also opened a clinic at
Quincy Medical Center.
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The Greater New Bedford center recently expanded its downtown facility, more than doubling its square footage. Brockton's new facility will approximately
double its patient capacity.
"We're taking a pretty aggressive stance as we get ready to move into the new building," said Joss. "It seems right now the demand will be there."