Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs), play a vital role in the health care safety net by providing access to affordable and quality primary medical, oral health, and behavioral health services to more than 29 million Americans.

What Makes a Community Health Center?

Requirements state that in order to be a Federally Qualified Health Center, FQHCs must:

  • Be located in a medically underserved area;
  • Serve a medically underserved population;
  • Provide comprehensive primary care;
  • Serve all patients regardless of age or income, within a defined service area;
  • Have a schedule of discounts (sliding-fee schedule) based on the patient’s ability to pay;
  • Be a public or not-for-profit organization; and
  • Be governed by a community-based board of directors. To be federally-funded, a majority of board members must use the health center and represent the community served in terms of demographic factors such as race, ethnicity, sex, age, and socioeconomic status.

FQHCs must also provide services and supports to ensure access is available to all in the community. These services may include language interpretation and translation, transportation, and case management.

FQHCs have access to numerous programs that ultimately benefit their patients. These programs include:

  • Drug Pricing Discounts for pharmaceutical products under the 340B Program;
  • Prospective Payment System reimbursement for services to Medicaid patients;
  • Cost-based reimbursement for services to Medicare patients;
  • Federal loan guarantees for capital improvements;
  • Access to on-site application and enrollment services for affordable health insurance, including Medicaid;
  • Access to Vaccines for Children Program for uninsured children; and
  • Access to National Health Service Corps (NHSC) medical, dental, and mental health providers.

Because community health centers serve a wide range of communities, from inner cities to rural frontiers, there is no one health center model. However, every community health center must have a sound infrastructure able to respond to the needs of its community within the constraints of its resources. Each community health center should develop processes and procedures designated to ensure the provision of high quality health services supported by strong management and governance.

To receive federal funding a community health center must meet the program expectations of the U.S. Public Health Service. Program expectations describe aspects of organizational structure and processes that are associated with successful health center programs.

Community Health Centers are required to assess the health needs of the population to be served and the resources available in the community to meet those needs. From this assessment centers can identify and prioritize issues to be address through the planning process. Centers are required to work closely with other safety net providers in defining and revising an appropriate role for the health center in addressing community health care needs. Factors used to determine need are geographic, demographic, and economic.

The Community Health Center must be governed by a board of directors, which has full authority and responsibility to establish program policies. The board of directors should govern within the context of a long-term strategic mission and goals, as well as an annual operating plan. A majority of the board members must represent users of the center’s services. A set of by-laws governing the organization should be maintained by the center. The by-laws must describe the structure and functions of the board, and meet the requirements of federal, state, and local laws and regulations.

To operate efficiently and effectively, the center must have appropriate management. The long-term mission and goals of the organization should guide center management. Management of a health center is a team process with well-defined lines of authority and responsibility. Adequate infrastructure must be in place including finance, management information systems, and communications.

Community health centers are required by law to operate a system of care that contributes to the desired outcomes of availability, accessibility, quality, comprehensiveness, and coordination. Centers must ensure that basic primary care services, coordinated with other levels of care, and support services appropriate to the communities defined health care needs are available and accessible. CHCs must also have qualified providers and a clinical management system that ensures quality and continuity of care.

To ensure resources are being applied in the most effective way to meet identified needs, every health center is required to develop health care goals and objectives as part of the organization’s planning process. The goals and objectives consider both the role of the center in the community’s overall system of care and the specific efforts the center will perform on behalf of its own user population and the community in general.

Learn more about Community Health Centers

For more information, visit the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) website.