At Project H.O.P.E. in Camden, a group of 10 behavioral health patients is sometimes packed into an exam room at midday while the doctor is at lunch.

That is expected to change over the next few years as the health center for the homeless triples its size with the help of a $4.7 million grant, part of $728 million in capital funding to community health centers nationwide that U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced Tuesday in a visit to the Fairmount Health Center in Philadelphia.

"For many Americans, community health centers are the major source of care," said Sebelius, who took a quick tour of the center.

The $1.5 million awarded Tuesday to the center's parent organization, Delaware Valley Community Health, will pay for energy-saving fixes and redesign at Fairmount, plus renovations at the Norristown Regional Health Center to expand pediatric capacity.

Community health centers, which by federal law must provide care for medically underserved populations, have become an increasingly important part of the safety net. An expansion in funding during the Bush administration was dramatically increased under President Obama's health-care overhaul.

With a projected 32 million people gaining health insurance over five years, about half through Medicaid, more capacity had to be rapidly added to the nation's health-care system. Community health centers were envisioned as playing a key role. The $11 billion that the Affordable Care Act designated for the health centers has already added 67 sites nationwide and supported construction or renovation at 190, officials said.

"Investing in health centers was always very important. But it is not the same as extending health insurance to people," said Julia Paradise, a health-policy analyst at the Kaiser Family Foundation. She cited the significant role that health centers will play in serving millions of newly insured people.

Although the trust fund for health-center expansion has largely avoided partisan attacks over Obama's health law, budget compromises in each of the previous two fiscal years have cut the routine $2.2 billion annual appropriation by 27 percent — money that was then replaced by funds that had been set aside for expansion, she said.

Among the other awards announced Tuesday were $1.1 million to more than double capacity and add behavioral health services at Public Health Management Corp.'s Temple Health Connection in North Philadelphia, and $351,000 to Esperanza for basic renovations to its North Fifth Street health center.

At Project H.O.P.E. in Camden, which saw 2,240 patients in 2011 — up 49 percent since 2009 — the grant will pay for a new building at its current clinic location in the Lanning Square neighborhood, said Patricia DeShields, the center's chief executive.

Patients have been coming in sicker than they were in the past, DeShields said, which she linked to a lack of access to follow-up care. "We have just been praying for money to expand," she said.

Contact Don Sapatkin at 215-854-2617 or