Community Health Centers: Chronicling Their History and Broader Meaning

In 1965 the nation’s first community health centers were launched as a small demonstration program as part of the President Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity. With roots in the both the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty, the earliest health centers had as their mission no less than using the health care system to change the health and lives of their communities’ residents.

Since their early days, health centers have flourished as perhaps few would imagine. By 2008, more than 1200 health centers, including health centers specializing in health care to migrant farmworkers, homeless persons, and public housing residents operated in over 7500 sites and provided health care to 17 million medically underserved patients throughout the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. territories.

Today health centers have become part of the nation’s primary health care foundation, distinguished by their mission to community, the quality of their care, their affordability and accessibility to all community residents, and perhaps most uniquely, their community governance. All health centers have governing boards more than half of whom are patients of the health centers.

Every health center is an embodiment of its community’s aspiration for better health and health care, and CHroniCles aims to honor health centers by creating a special place that allows each health center to tell its history in its own voice and in a way that allows the entire nation to pay a visit. The project is a special partnership of the RCHN Community Health Foundation, The National Association of Community Health Centers and the Geiger Gibson Program in Community Health Policy at the Milken Institute School of Public Health and Health Services at The George Washington University.

Community Health Center Programs

Community, Migrant, Homeless, and Public Housing Health Centers are non-profit, community-directed health care providers serving low income and medically underserved communities.Health centers have become part of the nation's primary health care foundation, distinguished by their quality of care, affordability and accessibility to all community residents, and their mission to community. Initially authorized and funded as separate programs, community health centers, migrant health centers, health care for the homeless, and public housing primary care were later reauthorized and consolidated under the Health Centers Consolidation Act of 1996 (Public Law 104-299) which amended Section 330 of the Public Health Service Act.  Community health centers provide access to all, including the most vulnerable populations isolated from other forms of care because of financial, geographic, language, cultural or other challenges. All community health centers:

  • Are located in or serve designated high-need communities or populations
  • Are governed by community boards, at least 51% of whose members are health center patients.
  • Provide comprehensive primary health care services as well as supportive and enabling services (such as education, translation and transportation, etc.) that promote access to health care.
  • Are open to all, regardless of insurance status or ability to pay, and offer fees adjusted based on ability to pay.
  • Meet other performance and accountability requirements regarding administrative, clinical, and financial operations.

Health centers tailor their services to address the unique needs of the communities they serve, offering comprehensive primary and preventive care for children and adults as well as dental, mental health and substance abuse, pharmacy and enabling services to help reduce barriers to care. Some health centers also receive designated funding to focus on certain especially vulnerable populations, including individuals and families experiencing homelessness, migrant/ agricultural workers and their families, and those living in public housing.