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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Sariah Worthington, 7, and her mother, Amanda, wait to see a doctor at the Mid-Valley Health Clinic at the Copperview Recreation Center in Midvale on Thursday, July 17, 2014.
We eliminate the barriers to preventive care, and most of those barriers are financial. There are also language barriers and transportation barriers, but financial barriers seem to be the most prevalent. —Alan Pruhs, executive director for the Association for Utah Community Health Centers

SALT LAKE CITY — Hundreds of thousands of Utahns visit community health centers each year, mostly for health and medical issues pertaining to preventive care.

But the 40 clinics across the state do more than deliver health care — they provide jobs and contribute more than $141 million to the state's economy, according to the latest economic impact analysis of the Association for Utah Community Health Centers.

"We have these nonprofit, mission-driven health center organizations in the state and when you look at them collectively, there's a lot of economic benefit that they provide," said Alan Pruhs, executive director for the Association for Utah Community Health Centers.

Community health centers in Utah — including a migrant worker health center in Brigham City and the Fourth Street Clinic for homeless patients — provide 861 full-time jobs that contribute tax revenue for the state, as well as support healthy communities, Pruhs said.

Mid-Valley Health Clinic in Midvale, for instance, employs 19 people and contributes payroll and sales taxes.

"We try also to buy local, not just within the state but within our own community," said Kurt Micka, executive director of Utah Partners for Health, a nonprofit corporation which owns and operates the clinic at 8446 S. Harrison St.

The clinic accepts Medicaid, Children's Health Insurance Plan, Primary Care Network, Medicare and most private insurances. A sliding fee scale is available.

The clinic, which Micka describes as "primary medical home," offers preventative care for adults and children, vision screenings, immunizations, management of chronic illnesses as well as acute care. The clinic is on track to serve 4,500 people this year, he said.

Pruhs doesn't like the notion that some people dismiss community health centers as "free clinics" that don't provide quality services.

At Mid-Valley, for instance, patient visits are 30 minutes long "at a minimum," Micka said. "We have elected to offer a really high level of care."

The clinic wants to establish relationships with patients so small issues can be addressed before they become chronic conditions. Regular well visits also help ensure pediatric patients receive immunizations on schedule.

Angela Meza, who received care Thursday at the Mid-Valley Health Clinic, is a single mother of two who has no insurance. Visits to physicans' offices can run $200 to $300, she said.

"They (Mid-Valley) took me right in. They got me in here quick at a price I can pay for a one-time visit. I was very blessed. Today I only had $10 in my bag and they said they'd work with me," she said.

Not only do Utah health centers provide access to quality, affordable health care services in urban and rural communities, "they serve as critical economic engines, directly and indirectly supporting local businesses within their local communities," Pruhs said.

Health centers in Utah served 127,990 patients with 417,111 medical, dental and behavioral health visits in 2013, according to the recent report. Fifty-seven percent of the clinics' patients were uninsured, 20 percent on Medicaid and 5 percent enrolled in Medicare. The report estimates that health centers save the state and the health care system $162 million in annual cost savings.

"We eliminate the barriers to preventive care, and most of those barriers are financial," Pruhs said. "There are also language barriers and transportation barriers, but financial barriers seem to be the most prevalent."

Many of the population served by health centers throughout the state don't qualify for coverage through the Affordable Care Act or health insurance marketplace subsidies, and they can't afford individual coverage on their own.

Community health clinics offer services on a sliding fee scale, depending on income, for anyone below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about 96 percent of patients served. About 76 percent of clinic patients come from households earning less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level. Patients are offered services for a nominal fee, paying up to $25 per visit.

Pruhs said no one is turned away for care, specifically urgent care, based on their inability to pay.

"There would not be access to health care in these communities if it weren't for this program," he said.

Community health centers were created 45 years ago with federal grants, aiming to assist America's poor and needy and providing an alternative to costly and unnecessary emergency room visits. There are now more than 8,000 clinics across the United States, serving 21 million Americans.

While the majority of patients served by Utah's community health clinics are uninsured or living in poverty, the nonprofit clinics accept all forms of private and public insurance and rely on revenue from that to keep the doors open to anyone in need.

"They have to remain a viable business and they're of no service to the community if they have to close their doors," Pruhs said.

Clinics are located throughout the state, including in urban and rural locations, particularly in areas where there are higher rates of low-income or uninsured households, or where health disparities and certain conditions are more prevalent.

Additional federal grants secured last year enabled the opening of seven new clinics in Utah, including four in rural areas. In addition to grants from government and other organizations, fundraising also helps the health centers keep on top of costs.

Amanda Worthington of Kearns brought her 7-year-old daughter Sariah to Mid-Valley Clinic Thursday for a follow-up visit in advance of a family trip.

Going to Mid-Valley "relieves quite a bit of stress. For us, it reduces emergency room visits," Worthington said.

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