There is much debate and confusion about how health care is changing under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly called ObamaCare. But this fact is essential: more people all across the country will have more options for affordable primary health care.

Community health centers -- nonprofits with the mission of providing high-quality care to anyone who arrives at their doors, regardless of ability to pay -- are expanding into more neighborhoods where people live and work. Health centers have been around for more than 45 years and serve over 22 million people, according to the National Association of Community Health Centers. 

Here in the North Bay, 16 Redwood Community Health Coalition health centers in Sonoma, Napa, Marin and Yolo counties currently care for 210,000 people, including nearly one in five of the region’s children. Under the Affordable Care Act, more than 92,000 uninsured residents of these four counties – including 50,000 in Sonoma County -- will be newly eligible for health coverage starting Jan. 1, 2014.  Some of them are already our patients; many more will turn to us for their care.

Enrollment begins Oct. 1. Health center staff will inform residents of their eligibility and get them covered. Uninsured people who visit us and are eligible for new health coverage options will leave with affordable health insurance.

They will also receive high quality care. Thanks to federal investments in expanding primary care capacity, community health centers across the country, including ours, have been able to implement electronic health records systems and to improve the quality of care at the same time that we are expanding our capacity to serve more patients. 

AARP The Magazine recently cited community health centers as the number one option “for good health care when you're uninsured.”  But community health centers are providers of choice for people who are insured and value having an affordable health care home. A 2012 Stanford University study found that community health center physicians performed as well as or better than their private practice colleagues.

Quality health care starts with having a team of caring professionals on your side.  When people have a place to go for regular care, they use it to stay healthy and out of hospitals. As someone who works on the frontlines of health care, I see the patients who are controlling their diabetes, the gentleman whose life was saved by a simple test, and the relief in a mother’s eyes because she did not have to choose between putting food on the table and getting her child immunized. I am proud of our accomplishments. Nationwide, community health centers have:Reduced health disparities based on ethnicity and income levels, even in the poorest and most challenged communities.Saved $24 billion in health care costs annually.Reduced unnecessary hospitalizations and emergency room visits.Provided preventive medicine that patients use regularly, improving their overall health.

The services we provide onsite -- comprehensive primary care, dentistry, mental health services, health education and so much more -- allow our patients to get the care they need under one roof and in a place where they are treated with dignity and respect. This is what health care should be: simple and patient-centered. 

The theme of this year’s National Health Center Week, Aug. 11--17, was "Transforming Health Care in Our Local Communities.” Shifting the emphasis from disease management to disease prevention is what we mean when we talk about transforming our health care delivery system. Public health improves when affordable primary health care is available to all.

I invite you to come see the transformation in progress at any of Redwood Community Health Coalition’s 16 health centers. Here and at health centers nationwide is where the work of transforming health care is well under way, for the good health of everyone....

 Mary Maddux-Gonzalez is chief medical officer of Redwood Community Health Coalition, a network of 16 community health centers in Napa, Sonoma, Marin and Yolo counties.