Community Health Centers Have Experienced Increased Demand for Social Services During the Pandemic and Have Added Capacity for Mental Health

Community health centers have seen a rise in patients seeking non-medical services such as housing, food, nutrition, and transportation during the pandemic and have added new mental health and substance use disorder (SUD) services in response to growing need, according to a new KFF survey.

Over half of the health centers that responded to the survey said that, amid the economic disruption of the pandemic, more patients are seeking social and supportive services that complement primary care. A majority of centers reported providing on-site health literacy (71%) and transportation services (63%), while at least 4 in 10 report providing SNAP, WIC, or other nutritional services (44%) and healthy food options, such as an on-site food pantry or meal delivery (42%).

Nearly two-thirds of health centers said they added new in-person or virtual mental health services, including individual and group therapy services. And roughly half of health centers (48%) saw an increase in patients with opioid use disorder during the pandemic, with a rising share of health centers providing medication-assisted treatment services. These services were added at a time when health centers were also rolling out vaccination campaigns and other pandemic-related services in underserved communities.

The survey of community health centers, conducted in late 2021, probed the pandemic’s effect on services, the challenges health centers face and their preparedness for the unwinding of the public health emergency declaration.

Other key survey findings include:

  • While health centers ramped up telehealth services during the pandemic, nearly all cited patients’ lack of internet access (97%) and lack of comfort using telehealth technology (93%) as major or minor challenges.
  • Eighty-five percent of responding health centers cited staffing shortages as a challenge in providing social and supportive services. The vast majority also cited staffing issues as a barrier to providing mental health and substance use disorder services.
  • Eighty-one percent of responding health centers reported that it was very or somewhat difficult to schedule a specialist appointment for uninsured patients. Sixty-three percent reported difficulties scheduling such appointments for Medicaid fee-for-service patients, and 58 percent reported difficulties for Medicaid managed care patients.

In a separate policy watch, KFF analysts explain what steps community health centers are taking to prepare for the end of the federal public health emergency, during which states have been required to provide continuous coverage for Medicaid enrollees in order to receive enhanced federal funding during the pandemic. As of late 2021, roughly two-thirds of health centers were planning or taking actions to help their patients retain coverage, including reaching out to patients directly, increasing staff time on enrollment activities, and coordinating with legal services organizations.

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