Surgeon general promotes health centers on visit to metro area

“The center helps, but we still have a ways to go. The need is still great because most of our patients come from public housing or are homeless,” said Karen Williams, an associate vice president at the center.

Which is why she -- along with officials from several other community health centers in metro Atlanta -- were so excited to meet Monday with U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin.

A graduate of the Morehouse School of Medicine, Benjamin was in town to help kick off National Health Center Week. In the morning she spoke to a group of local health care professionals and state officials about the impact of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, or stimulus, and the Affordable Care Act in supporting community health centers. Later, she made a stop at the Bronner Bros. International Hair Show -- not to get her hair done, but to encourage women to exercise without the fear of messing up their hair.

“In Georgia, just like the rest of the South, there is a tremendous need for community health centers,” Benjamin said. “Everybody is hurting, but as we look, things are starting to get a little better. Things are improving slowly.”

Benjamin said that $2 billion has been set aside to help fund community health centers, which treat about 2.5 million people annually. Georgia has 26 community health centers, which saw 275,743 patients in 2008.

There are seven centers in metro Atlanta, including West End.

Williams said her center got more than $1 million in stimulus money in 2009, including $340,000 to fund an increased demand for services and $905,000 for capital improvements. For example, the center was able to buy a mobile unit to better serve the community.

Tom Andrews, president of St. Joseph’s Mercy Care Services, also caters to a depressed population -- particularly the homeless. In 2009 he got close to $1 million and was able to add dental services and a radiology lab.

“Community health centers have a long-standing history of serving the needs of the underserved and uninsured,” said Assistant U.S. Surgeon General Clara H. Cobb, the acting regional health administrator for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “When you look at the Southeast, the states mirror each other in having populations that need this.”

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