Bailey Spates, NASM-CPT, is the Program Specialist for NACHC’s Regulatory Affairs department.
The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted the world, and vaccines have been one of the most important tools in our fight against the virus. In the early days of the pandemic, the U.S. government purchased large quantities of vaccines and distributed them to the public at no cost. Community Health Centers have played a pivotal role in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic by ensuring equitable access to prevention and treatment.
Over 1,400 health centers operate in nearly 13,000 locations across the country, serving nearly 31.5 million patients in 2022. This includes many high-need populations, such as people who are homeless, low-income elderly individuals, and those with complex medical, behavioral, and social needs. Because of their location, scope of care, and experience in serving at-risk populations, health centers are well-positioned to reach the most vulnerable and underserved communities that are the most at risk for exposure to COVID-19.
Providing Access to Testing and Vaccinations
Since 2021, health centers have provided over 22 million COVID-19 tests, 24 million COVID-19 vaccines, and more than 19 million personal protection equipment and At-home test kits through HRSA’s COVID-19 Testing Supply Program. Thanks to their efforts, areas with health centers have experienced fewer COVID-19 infections and COVID-19 deaths compared to areas without them. Despite many adversities such as workforce and funding, health centers have been instrumental in boosting COVID-19 vaccination rates across the U.S. among underserved and minority populations.
On January 30, 2023, the Biden Administration announced the end date of May 11, 2023, of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, government-led initiatives like the HRSA Health Center COVID-19 Vaccine Program. For the last few months, the healthcare industry has been preparing for the commercialization of the new monovalent COVID-19 vaccine.
Commercialization is the process of transitioning COVID-19 medical countermeasures, such as vaccines, treatments, and test kits, from being purchased by the U.S. government to being procured, distributed, and paid for by both public and private payers. This means that health centers will now have to order and pay for these materials individually.
Bridging the Gap
NACHC appreciates the recognition of health centers’ contributions to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic by the Health and Human Services Department (HHS). HHS created the “COVID-19 Bridge Access Program” which provides resources to health centers to support the transition to vaccine commercialization. This $1.1 billion public-private partnership ensures that uninsured and underinsured Americans can still get COVID-19 vaccines and treatments at local pharmacies, public health facilities, and health centers. The goal is to provide a “bridge” for providers, like health centers, to ease into commercialization as they incorporate the new costs related to the COVID-19 vaccine into their budgets. The HHS Bridge Access Program allocated funding to the Health Resource and Services Agency (HRSA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to help health centers continue their efforts to vaccinate as many underserved and uninsured communities as possible.
The HRSA Bridge Access Program provided over $81 million in funding to support health centers’ COVID-19-related services in their communities. Health centers can continue to order testing supplies and therapeutics through HRSA at no cost. Health centers will be able to use this funding to:
- purchase COVID-19 vaccines, testing, and therapeutics
- provide enrollment assistance, transportation, and care coordination to support COVID-19-related services
- host community COVID-19 vaccination events
- support workforce
The CDC COVID-19 Bridge Access Program will distribute free COVID-19 vaccines to uninsured adults at local health departments, HRSA-supported health centers, and retail pharmacies. This program will run from Fall 2023 to December 2024 The Bridge Access Program aims to eliminate patient barriers to COVID-19 vaccines. State and local health departments are required to distribute at least 25% of each allocation to health centers within their jurisdiction. For more information, you can review the NACHC’s operational guidance, communications toolkit, and FAQ to learn more about the CDC Bridge Program.
Barriers to Healthcare Remain
While health centers appreciate all the new resources to support COVID-19 vaccinations and education, the commercialization of the vaccine raises awareness of long-standing financial challenges related to adult immunizations. Vaccines are one of the most important public health interventions available, but health centers often experience barriers like inadequate reimbursement, lack of funding, and workforce challenges that impact their ability to vaccinate underserved communities. Health centers also navigate vaccine hesitancy among their patients and systemic barriers such as lack of health insurance or social drivers of health. Now, with the commercialization of the COVID-19 vaccine, health centers must figure out how to cover the cost of the vaccine and administrative costs related to staffing, especially for their Medicaid patients.
Despite these challenges, health centers are committed to providing accessible and affordable vaccines to their patients. As always, health centers continue to stretch their federal resources to reach as many uninsured and underinsured patients as possible. NACHC is working closely with the Biden Administration to support the HHS Bridge Programs and ongoing policy discussions about long-term solutions. Health centers remain committed to serving the uninsured and underserved, and they value the support that helps them continue serving their unique patient populations.