Congress must act to save Community Health Centers

Even as more Americans have health insurance coverage these days, a serious health care problem persists nationwide: a shortage of places to go to get the primary and preventive care services that everyone needs. A key part of the solution lies in our nation’s Community Health Centers, which have provided quality, affordable care for the past five decades.  But these vital safety net programs will only continue if Congress acts now to ensure their survival.

A cornerstone of Community Health Centers’ success is the sustained federal investment, which allows every local health center to leverage considerable non-federal resources to serve their communities and be accountable for their performance.  And there is a return on that investment: Community Health Centers save the U.S. healthcare system more than $24 billion every year in reduced overall costs from preventable hospitalizations and avoidable emergency room visits, a figure that dwarfs the federal investments made in their operations.

Yet even with this successful track record, the future for Community Health Centers is uncertain because these centers of care now face a “funding cliff.” Much of Community Health Centers’ success depends on consistent federal support, which health centers are at risk of losing when a major source of federal funding expires on Oct. 1, 2015. Without action by Congress to address the resulting  shortfall, the nation’s health centers face up to a 70 percent reduction in federal support, which would inevitably lead to site closures, health center staff layoffs, and loss of healthcare access for an estimated 7 million patients.

Such a result seems all the more unthinkable in light of studies estimating that some 62 million people in America have little or no access to a primary care provider in their communities.

What began as a modest demonstration program in the mid-1960s has evolved 50 years later into the largest and most successful primary care system in the country.  Since their inception, these health centers have demonstrated impressive results in reducing infant mortality, improving immunizations rates, developing programs for early screening and treatment of cancer, and managing chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes.  Today, health centers serve more than 23 million Americans, including about 7 million children and 250,000 veterans – providing quality medical, dental, behavioral health and vision care in 9,000 communities across the country.

Community Health Centers are one of the bright spots in our health care system, and during our careers in government—which included service in Congress and the executive branch—we proudly worked to expand their reach. The bipartisan support for health centers in Congress has also been reflected in the past two Administrations.  From their inception, health centers not only formed the foundation for quality, cost-effective primary care in America; they also started one of the most successful—and enduring—public-private partnerships in U.S. history. To this day, health centers continue to operate as not-for-profit, locally directed businesses governed by patient-majority boards focused on innovative ways of meeting the unique healthcare needs of their communities. 

There are clear signs that Congress wants to address this problem, along with the National Health Service Corps and Teaching Health Centers, to ensure an adequate supply of primary health care professionals.  Last fall, 250 House members and 66 Senators signed letters to congressional leaders highlighting the important role of Community Health Centers, and calling for a bipartisan solution to this precipitous drop in funding.  And more than 100 national groups—representing doctors, hospitals, financial institutions and disease advocates— have called for a fix.  Yet with this “funding cliff” set to hit October 1, Congress has not yet taken action.  They shouldn’t wait any longer.

The 114th Congress took office last month with a pledge to find solutions that work, and to work across the aisle to get things done for the American people.  In the health care arena, investing in access to primary care through Community Health Centers is a logical, non-controversial, pragmatic and cost-saving solution.  Congress should act without delay to see that Community Health Centers continue to serve those in need for the next 50 years.  


Daschle served in the Senate from 1987 to 2005 and was Majority Leader from 2001 to 2003. He currently heads the Daschle Group, a subsidiary of the law and lobbying firm Baker Donelson. Leavitt was governor of Utah from 1993 to 2003, administrator of the EPA from 2003 to 2005 and secretary of Health and Human Services from 2005 to 2009. He is founder and chairman of the consulting firm Leavitt Partners.