updated 7/27/2009 6:14:58 PM ET 2009-07-27T22:14:58

First lady Michelle Obama promoted the work of community health centers on Monday, saying they have a critical place in her husband's effort to overhaul how the nation delivers health care.

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At times echoing President Barack Obama, she said "health insurance reform isn't just about the nearly 46 million Americans who don't have insurance. It's about all those folks who do."

Without change, one of every $5 spent in the next decade will be on health care, Mrs. Obama said. Thirty years out, that figure is projected to drop to one of every $3. Combined Medicare and Medicaid spending eventually will outstrip anything else Uncle Sam spends money on, meaning in higher costs for all, she said.

Mrs. Obama said an overhaul would encourage a shift away from treating illness and put more emphasis on prevention, which is where community health centers come into play.

Such centers provide care in places where people sometimes have to drive hours to see a doctor. As a result, "they don't get checkups, they don't get regular routine screenings that keep us healthy" but rather seek care at costly hospital emergency rooms as they go from one health crisis to another, she said.

But community health centers "just dig a little deeper," she said, asking questions about length of time between doctor visits or when a patient last had a mammogram.

"Ultimately practice here isn't just about diagnosing problems, it's about caring for people," Mrs. Obama said before using a large pair of scissors to cut a red ribbon and officially open Caroline Family Practice here in central Virginia.

Mrs. Obama traveled nearly 90 minutes southwest of Washington, D.C., for the honor.

The center, which received $1.3 million in federal economic stimulus funds, opened last week.

There has been instant demand for the care it provides. "We are seeing more patients every day come in," said Rod Manifold, executive director of Central Virginia Health Services, which runs 14 such centers.

The visit is part of Mrs. Obama's effort to highlight programs that meet a community's needs for medical care, and to promote prevention and wellness care, her office said.

It was her third stop at a community health center.

During a visit to a Washington health center last month, Mrs. Obama announced the release of $850 million in stimulus funds to help such clinics provide care nationwide.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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