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Congress Drags Its Feet on Renewing Funds for Health Clinics Serving Poor, Uninsured Americans

Most patients who rely on community health clinics are poor, uninsured or receive coverage through Medicare or Medicaid. (Photo by John Feingerish/Getty Images)

The clock is ticking for Congress to renew federal funding for thousands of community health clinics across the country, but the legislation that would do just that hasn’t even made it onto the congressional calendar.

Lawmakers have until Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year, to extend the Community Health Center Fund, which provides $3.6 billion in federal funds to nearly 1,400 community health center organizations, ThinkProgress reported. Without congressional action to renew the funds, community health centers would face a 70 percent cut in funding, leading to the closure of 2,800 health care sites and a loss of access to basic care for 9 million patients.

On Sept. 13, Reps. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), David Young (R-IA), Joe Courtney (D-CT) and Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ) introduced a bill that would prevent the funding cliff by extending the CHCF for an additional five years, according to a press release. The bill, known as the Community Health Investment, Modernization and Excellence (CHIME) Act of 2017, would also provide modest increases to meet the demand for care and national priority areas.

“This legislation could not have come at a more critical time for our nation’s health centers and the patients and communities they serve,” Dan Hawkins, senior vice president for Public Policy and Research at the National Association of Community Health Centers, said in a statement.

“Health centers nationwide are already experiencing major disruptions as a result of the looming funding cliff,” Hawkins added. “The CHIME Act would provide health centers in more than 10,000 communities the certainty that they need to continue delivering high-value care, keeping costs down and improving quality.”

The lawmakers have run into an issue, however. The bill has yet to be scheduled for a vote, leaving just four legislative days left before the September 30 deadline.

Now millions of patients who rely on community health centers, who are usually poor, uninsured or receive coverage through Medicare or Medicaid, risk losing access to primary and preventative care, as well as behavioral health, dental and substance abuse services.

Hawkins told ThinkProgress that the lack of action on Congress’ part is likely due to the fact that it has “so many other important things on their platter.” Most of its attention regarding health care is focused on efforts to cut or expand Obamacare, so “in the bigger scheme of things, we’re small potatoes,” he said.

If Congress finds the time to squeeze the bill onto its cramped calendar, House and Senate leaders told health center advocates they’re confident the CHIME Act will get passed. Plus, funding for community health centers has historically received support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, according to the news site.

Some healthcare advocates are still concerned about the funding crisis, however, despite reassurance from lawmakers.

“We’re worried that the uncertainty regarding funding will force health centers to immediately halt any long-term plans that can’t be sustained on month-to-month funding,” said Cassidy Heit, public policy and communications associate at the Oklahoma Primary Care Association.

“If Congress waits until the end of the year to protect health center funding, health centers in Oklahoma with grant years starting in January could be forced to close down entirely,” Heit continued. “Especially for small rural health centers operating on small margins, cuts or even inaction could be devastating for their communities.”

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