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By Rose Hoban

Federal officials have awarded two North Carolina clinics almost $1.1 million as part of an effort to create more community health centers around the country.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced the awards Friday, which came as part of $19 million made available by the Affordable Care Act to create 32 new health-service delivery sites across the U.S.

“We’re thrilled,” said Ben Money, the president of the North Carolina Community Health Center Association.

Gaston Family Health Services in Gastonia received $325,000 and Triad Adult and Pediatric Medicine Inc. in Greensboro received $758,333 from the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

Money said Gaston Family Health Services is expanding in Hickory, partnering with a free clinic there and helping increase access to care. This funding will help that.

More important for the clinics, each will now be designated as “Federally Qualified Health Centers,” which entitles clinics to enhanced payments to treat Medicaid and Medicare patients, special pricing for prescription medications for their patients and opportunities for additional federal grants.

Triad Adult and Pediatric Medicine has six clinical sites in and around Guilford County. Those sites are medical homes for about 39,000 children and 15,000 adults, Executive Director Brian Ellerby said in an interview with N.C. Health News earlier this year.

Ellerby said patients made more than 90,000 visits in 2011; about a third of those visits were by people who lacked any insurance.

“The research will tell you that the return on investment for us seeing those 30,000 patients is far greater than having them go elsewhere,” said Ellerby, who estimated the clinic’s budget at about $15 million a year.

“If only half of those people had gone to emergency departments, that’s more than $10 million right there.”

Ellerby said Triad had applied to become an FQHC several times and recently had to close one of their locations.

“There are so many things we’re currently doing to expand care,” Ellerby said. “I know that there’s so much more that we could do if we had the funding.”

“This actually is a boost to help them continue to provide access to care in the community,” Money said. “We’ll also say that they and other health centers will continue to be challenged by the increasing number of uninsured until North Carolina revisits the decision to not expand Medicaid.”

According to data from the National Association of Community Health Centers, North Carolina has 28 FQHC organizations, with more than 170 sites where patients can get care. The state’s FQHCs saw 411,000 patients in 2011; more than half of those patients were without insurance.

FQHCs must be not-for-profit organizations, serve an underserved area or population and have ongoing quality-assurance measures in place.

The grants announced Friday also included $48 million in additional funding for existing FQHCs. Thirty-two clinics in North Carolina received a total of $1.15 million in additional funding.

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