Congress could increase access to health care for 30 million Americans and save billions of dollars by increasing its investment in Community Health Centers, according to a national report released Monday.

In a national telephone news conference to discuss "Access Granted: The Primary Care Payoff," proponents hailed the centers as a "medical-home" approach to care that provides "physical, mental and dental" while saving billions of dollars and adding to the local economies where they're located. The report was prepared by the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care, the National Association of Community Health Centers and Capital Link, which did the economic analysis.

"People who have a usual source of care but no health insurance actually receive more primary and preventive care than those who have insurance but no usual source of care," the report says. "Not surprisingly, those who have both fare best."

While providing a broad range of care services, the centers emphasize prevention and primary care, said Dr. Virgilio Licona, a family physician at a Colorado center. A strong primary-care health system would "save easily enough to pay for such a system," he added.

The nation's 1,100 centers, including 11 in Utah, provide care to 16 million Americans, regardless of ability to pay or insurance status. They are nonprofit, community-owned and federally supported. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., are co-sponsors of a bill that would reauthorize funding for the centers and also set funding targets that would over the next eight years provide health care access through them to about 30 million more Americans. A similar bill is in Congress.

The report says the centers already save the health care system $9.9 billion to $17.6 billion. They also provide 143,000 jobs and contribute $12.6 billion to the economy. The impact of the proposed investment by Congress would total an economic impact of $40.7 billion and more than 460,000 jobs in the communities by 2015.

"Quite simply, Community Health Centers are the best health care investment America can make," Stephen Petterson, senior health policy researcher at the Robert Graham Center, told reporters who dialed into the news conference. "Medical expenses for their patients are 41 percent lower compared to patients seen elsewhere." He said the centers spent an average of $2,569 a year on patients, compared to care in a different setting, which averaged $4,379. "Even to those of us who follow health care closely, the figures are stunning."

Allison Coleman, CEO of Capital Link, said economic analysis included actual savings in the health care system, the money they generate in communities and what employees spend in their communities, among other things.

A previous study showed that there are 56 million Americans who have insurance but no regular primary health care largely due to physician shortages, said Dan Hawkins, policy director for the NACHC. Expanding centers would reduce the number of "medically underserved," save money and provide "an economic engine for mostly low-income communities" the centers serve.

The proposal is not without challenges. Expansion only works if there's an adequate work force. A future report will examine the impact of too few primary-care physicians being trained. And the centers also wrestle with capital needs such as expanded facilities and equipment, including health information technology, the report says.

Utah's 11 federally funded health centers operate at 30 different sites, 64 percent of them in rural communities. They employ 688 full-time staff, and the economic impact is estimated at $60.4 million.

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