Congress, don't go home without preserving community health centers

Congress, don't go home without preserving community health centers
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This week, as Congressional leaders make the tough decisions regarding what should, can, and must be dealt with before year’s end, they should consider a long-term fix for community health centers a “must.” Republicans have long supported growth in community health centers, since they represent a truly local solution to our national health care challenges of access, quality, and cost. Republicans’ deserve credit for unwavering support. However, a good reputation can be quickly lost and delay in action threatens to throw community health centers into a crisis.

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If Congressional leaders do not act soon, considerable damage will be done to community health centers and the fragile population they care for. What limited funding exists is being sent to centers on a piecemeal month-to-month basis. But as small businesses, community health centers can’t operate with only month-to-month certainty.

Major expenses don’t come in month-to-month increments. Planning for the future — for how to bring innovative, integrated care to more patients and communities — goes to the back burner when only piecemeal solutions are in place. Recruiting a nurse practitioner can’t be done without being able to reassure her that a health center has stable funding.

Community health centers are reporting getting turned down for bank loans, instituting hiring freezes, all the while trying to reassure patients and staff about the future. Desperately needed providers are leaving rural communities over this uncertainty. The impact of any potential loss of funds is even greater in Republican areas – which tend to be more rural and have fewer people covered by Medicaid.

The Community Health Center Fund, which accounts for more than 70 percent of the federal grant investment in health centers, expired October 1. Congress has made clear this is a problem they want to fix - the House passed a bill extending that funding for two years, but the Senate hasn’t acted yet and a long-term resolution is caught in the end-of-year legislative pileup.

I have had to opportunity to work with community health centers for decades – first as the governor of Utah and then as the secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) under President George Bush’s leadership where I proudly oversaw a doubling in the number of these centers nationwide.

In both roles, I witnessed the profound impact that community health centers have on delivering cost-savings and improved outcomes in some of our hardest-to-reach communities. As the country’s largest primary-care network, community health centers provide a range of services — including mental health and emergency response services to those in crisis, prevention and wellness programs, primary care to uninsured, and medical homes ⎯ for patients who need it most. Today they’re serving more than 27 million patients in more than 10,000 of those communities in every state and territory.

My work with community health centers also helped me understand that federal funding is critical to the stabilization of the entire health center system in the United States. The Community Health Center Fund has stabilized and expanded health center service sites throughout the country, helped expand residency programs, facilitated the placement of health care professionals in underserved rural and urban communities through funding the National Health Service Corps, and supported addressing population health/social determinant needs.

It is no wonder that both Republicans and Democrats support the program. Republican congressional leaders deserve credit for their steady support of community health centers. We should not waiver now. Community health centers have been in limbo long enough. Our country cannot afford to let this vital part of our health system lapse.

Mike Leavitt is the founder of Leavitt Partners and the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2005-2009) and former governor of Utah (1993-2003).