It’s necessary to keep your shoulder to the wheel but sometimes you have to step back and see how far you’ve gone and what you have accomplished. Next year will be one of those times.

As those familiar with the history of community health centers are aware, 2015 will mark the anniversary of the year the centers officially began. It is a time to gather the clan and celebrate, for CHCs have gone far beyond what anyone imagined back in 1965 when the first two centers were established in an impoverished area of rural Mississippi and a section of Boston that sat amid urban blight.

I think it’s fair to say no one involved in starting community health centers had any idea that the centers would not only be around 50 years later but would have expanded to about 1,300 centers in all 50 states. No one could have predicted that the centers would one day serve 22 million patients – one of every 15 people in the United States.

Together, we’ve made a difference – a huge difference – in this nation’s health-care system. Now, I’m excited about continuing to make a difference on new challenges.

Toward this end, we have created an organization that will lead and organize the celebration in 2015 – the Community Health Center Alumni Association. We have been working to create the North Carolina chapter of the association (I’m proud to say that N.C. Community Health Center Association has taken a lead role in this initiative), but we expect this to expand nationwide. The National Association of Community Health Centers is fully behind this effort and is actively working to establish the association.

The celebration will primarily be in 2015, but preparation is well underway, including development of a web site, application for tax-exempt status and creation of an advisory board.

Anyone who has had a role in creating, supporting, sustaining and expanding community health centers is eligible for membership in the Community Health Center Alumni Association. If you are a current or former provider, staff member, patient, board member, contractor who has worked with centers, elected or government officials who has supported our cause, we would love for you to join.

There is no fee to join – this is not a fund-raising effort. And, although we want to look back at the past, we really have our eyes on the future. Ultimately, this initiative is about putting our collective heads and hearts together to come up with solutions for health-care issues that are facing America today.

We need to make sure we are around for another 50 years, but we not only need to survive, we need to thrive, and we need for the health-care system as a whole to thrive.

There are lessons in the blood, sweat and tears that have brought us to where we are. It took bringing together the collective power, intelligence, talent, humanity and compassion of a wide variety of people to arrive at where we are – the best quality care at the lowest cost. To put it simply, community health centers offer the right care at the right cost at right place. But it was not easy getting here.

If we look back at our beginning, it is important to remember that the partnerships and relationships that established community health centers were far from a given back in 1965. Northerners and Southerners had to come together, and this required a commitment to help on the part of Northerners, a commitment to accept help from Southerners, and a commitment to trust on both parts. This is despite (or perhaps, considering how hostile some Internet communication can be, because of) a far less advanced communications system. When John Hatch ventured into rural Mississippi in 1965, partners Jack Geiger and Count Gibson did not hear from him for three solid weeks.

The continued and remarkable growth of community health centers has been accomplished through the political support from the state and local level and from both political parties, and the strong support of every president since Lyndon Johnson. In today’s partisan political climate, that may be harder to imagine than not hearing from a partner involved in an important venture for three weeks.

But people and government entities found a way to come together for a common good – to meet challenges that faced our country. We have done it in the past, and I believe that we can still do it today.

The experience of community health centers offers hope for the future of health care. I think people are so tired of all the bickering that they want to commit to hope, but they want reality-based hope. Let’s pull the health-care community together again to speak with one loud and clear voice to address new health-care challenges in the United States:
• How can we continue to take care of people by doing more with less?
• How do we provide low-cost, high-quality care within communities?
• How can we continue our commitment to all people but make sure to serve the baby-boom generation, as it ages, in innovative ways?

Community health centers have shown that we have the expertise and knowledge to help our country with solutions. Fifty years ago, we just hoped two communities could be served. No one intended or even imagined that they could become a program that would serve one of every 15 people in this country.

CHC’s have always prided ourselves on bringing different people together to solve problems – something that has been missing the last several years. We know we can do this. Let’s get back to what has worked for our country and have others learn from our example.

That’s what this effort is all about. Stay tuned for details as the effort progresses.

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