For the Community, By the Community

By Suzanne Smith, Health Center Operations Division Director, Colorado Community Health Network

The fact that Community Health Centers (CHCs) and the National Institute for Medical Assistant Advancement (NIMAA) share a common focus – improving the lives of community members – is no surprise, given that NIMAA was founded by two CHCs. However, it is this common focus that supports an ongoing and natural partnership.

CHCs, also referred to as Federally Qualified Health Centers, or FQHCs, began in the 1960s during President Johnson’s War on Poverty. Since the beginning, mission as well as mandate have kept CHCs focused on providing access to high-quality health care based on the needs of the community. The key CHC tenets that help this community focus to endure include:

  • A majority (51 percent+) of each CHC board must be patients served by the CHC, and the remaining board members must be representatives from the community.
  • CHCs must assess the health care needs of the community to inform decisions on the services to provide, as well as areas where the care is needed most.
  • No patient is turned away because of income or lack of insurance coverage. CHCs provide sliding fee discounts based on the patient’s income and family size and conduct regular reviews on the effectiveness of the discounts in reducing financial barriers to care.1

With this community-focused mission at the forefront, CHCs have grown to serve nearly 30 million people, or 1 in 11 individuals nationwide, employing more than 256,000 individuals who live and work in the communities they serve. Medical support personnel, which includes medical assistants, make up approximately 14 percent of these employees.2 Medical assisting jobs are among the fastest growing nationwide and NIMAA has grown to help meet the demand for well-qualified medical assistants.3 From NIMAA’s first cohort in 2016 to its current cohort in 2020, NIMAA has expanded from serving 13 students in two states to a projected enrollment of over 100 students across 10 states in the 2020-2021 school year  NIMAA now has two program start dates a year and works with 18 clinical partners to provide externship opportunities in their communities.

From the beginning, NIMAA has focused on providing access to education and employment opportunities to community members, while helping to address the critical workforce shortage of medical assistants. An added benefit of the program is that CHCs are able to recruit and support the career growth of individuals from the community. And, by supporting access to health care professional education locally, NIMAA ensures that CHCs have staff that understand their patients’ health care needs and the barriers they face daily.

As the partnership between NIMAA and CHCs continues to grow, it will be the communities they serve that benefit from increased access to education, employment and access to high quality health care. As Cesar Chavez once said, “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community…Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”


1. Health Center Program Compliance Manual, Bureau of Primary Health Care, Health Resources and Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

2. Data for CHC grantees and Look-Alikes, 2019 Uniform Data System, Bureau of Primary Health Care, Health Resources and Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

3. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.