Community health centers lose funds, and almost no one notices

The Washington Post had a story on Friday that embarrassed me, because unless I had read it, I would never have known this:

Rather than handing out $250 million to establish new patient-care sites to serve more than 2 million additional people, as originally expected, the Obama administration gave $29 million to 67 nonprofit organizations that will serve an additional 286,000 patients.

The funding cut was a result of a federal budget compromise in March to keep the government running. That agreement reduced federal spending by nearly $80 billion, including a $600 million trim in funding for ongoing operations at existing health centers.

To make sure existing centers did not have to reduce services, the Obama administration diverted some of the $11 billion set aside in the health overhaul law for health-center expansion initiatives and instead used it to keep the centers operating at current levels.

But a casualty of this strategy was that some of the health-center expansion plans were either eliminated or drastically cut back.

Community health centers are a critical part of our health care system. They deliver medical, dental, and mental health services to anyone, even if you don’t have insurance. More than 5% of the US population relies on federally funded centers for primary care. Almost 40% of those who get care have no insurance; about one-third of those who get care are children.

These centers are also critical to health care reform. Many keep asking where all of the new patients on medicaid are going to go for care? Well, community health centers are part of the short answer. They were to be significantly expanded in preparation for the massive influx of newly insured people, many of whom are at the low end of the socio-economic spectrum.

But the funds set aside in order to do the expansion have been pulled away, with real consequences:

●A dental exam room at FoundCare Health Center in West Palm Beach, Fla., will remain unused four days a week because there’s no money to hire a dentist.

● Triad Adult and Pediatric Medicine in Greensboro, N.C., might face a repeat of last winter when more than 700 adult patients were put on a months-long waiting list for care, and the center had to stop taking new pediatric patients because of a lack of doctors.

● Heartland Community Health Center in Lawrence, Kan., will have to continue to tell patients they must wait at least two months for an appointment.

Remember that last one the next time that someone tells you that we don’t have wait times in the US.

When people talk about charity care, they’re often talking about community health centers. When people talk about the fact that anyone can get care, even the poor, they’re talking about community health centers. I won’t even mention the fact that community health centers are providing some of the cheapest care around. Cutting back on them is shortsighted and poor future planning.

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