December 18, 2017

STAT Op-Ed: Congress needs to fund community health centers right away

I love community health centers. They do wonderful work and enjoy widespread support. But I'm worried because Republican leaders in Congress have held these centers hostage by halting federal funding while they focus on passing tax cuts for the wealthy. It's past time to step up the fight for community health centers in my state of Massachusetts and across the country.

Community health centers are a big part of what's working well in health care today - more coverage at lower cost. They are on the front lines of the opioid epidemic. They provide preventive services and chronic disease management. They are taking the stigma out of mental health treatment. And they save money by promoting disease prevention, providing care coordination, and reducing the use of hospital emergency rooms.

Across the country, community health centers care for more than 25 million people.

Part of why I love visiting these centers is because each one is unique. Every community has distinct needs, and their health centers adapt and respond to these distinctions. But their goal is always the same - to provide the best possible care to anyone who walks through their doors.

One of the best parts of my job is traveling around the state to see the innovative work these centers do to keep people healthy. I hear from hardworking staff about the beneficial impact that opening a vision or dental clinic has on the community. I hear from patients about how having an on-site pharmacy where they can pick up their medications right away, or having immediate access to health care navigators who can answer insurance enrollment questions, has made it so much easier for them to get the care and the coverage they need.

The community health center in Brockton, Mass., partners with a local, family-owned Cape Verdean supermarket to teach residents about healthy cooking and active lifestyles. In East Boston, which is geographically isolated from the rest of the city, the community health center operates an emergency room that is open around the clock. The community health center in Lynn is the only site in the country using a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to focus on eradicating tuberculosis by seeking out and treating latent TB.

It's much the same in other states. In Michigan, 10 community health centers are working to increase access to routine and early screenings for breast and cervical cancer. In rural communities in Vermont, a community health center might be the only health care provider close by when residents need care. Across the country, these centers are fighting to improve and expand access to high-quality health care.

People who work in community health centers know that health care is a basic human right. The dedicated doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals at these sites take incredible care of families from every background. And they're always looking for ways they can better serve their patients and their community.

But community health centers can't do this much-needed work if the federal government doesn't keep its promises.

On Sept. 30, Congress blew past a major funding deadline for community health centers - a reauthorization of the Community Health Center Fund. This program provides more than 70 percent of all federal funding for health centers. Reauthorizing this program should be a no-brainer, and many of my Republican colleagues agree with that. But Republican leadership has been so focused on stripping health care coverage from many of the people who walk through the doors of community health centers that they ran right past this deadline - and they've just kept on running.

Not knowing when - or if - this funding will come, community health centers are feeling the impact. They are holding back on hiring new staff or deferring opportunities to make vital improvements to their programs. If they don't get this funding soon, they'll have to make even tougher decisions, like laying off staff members, cutting services, or reducing hours.

Community health centers aren't the only ones facing impossible choices. Funding for a number of other important health care programs also ran out on Sept. 30. Right now, funding is in limbo for programs that support primary care health care workers, like the Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education program and the National Health Service Corps. Funding also ran out on Sept. 30 for other health programs that help children and their families, including the Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides health care coverage for almost 186,000 children in Massachusetts and 9 million nationally. Funding ran out for programs that keep new babies healthy and safe, like the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program, and programs that help seniors and people with disabilities, like the State Health Insurance Assistance programs. It also ran out for programs that help people with diabetes, like the Special Diabetes Program.

What has been so important that, even after blowing through the deadline to reauthorize these important programs, Republican leadership has continued to avoid taking action? A so-called "tax reform" plan that will hit working families hard, including raising their health insurance premiums and leaving millions of people without coverage.

Tax cuts for billionaires shouldn't come ahead of making sure that children, pregnant women, people in need of addiction treatment, veterans, and other vulnerable populations have access to health care.

I'll keep fighting for community health centers and for all of these health care programs that have improved the lives of people in my state and every other state. I believe everyone deserves access to affordable, high-quality health care. Community health centers excel at providing that care - and they deserve our support.

Read the op-ed on the STAT News website here.


By:  Senator Elizabeth Warren
Source: STAT