Tester pushes for community health center funding

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With congressional funding for the nation’s community health centers set to expire on Nov. 21, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is fighting to get the funds reauthorized.

In the last fiscal year the Community Health Center Fund gave $4 billion to the nation’s health centers, on top of $1.6 billion in annual discretionary funding. But Tester is concerned that little is being done to ensure the $4 billion fund is extended beyond Nov. 21.

“We’re gonna keep banging the doors in D.C. to make sure any appropriations bill includes the funding for community health centers, because lives literally depend on it.” Tester said on a call with the media last week.

Montana has 14 community health centers that operate more than 80 delivery sites, and offer “comprehensive primary care” to around 110,000 patients, according to Stacy Anderson, deputy director of the Montana Primary Care Association.

A community health center is a federally supported, affordable option for primary health care, the National Association of Community Health Centers states on its website. These centers increase access to health-care services by reducing barriers such as cost, lack of insurance and distance, and are especially essential in the nation’s rural areas.

Northwest Montana has two centers, the Flathead Community Health Center in Kalispell and the Northwest Community Health Center in Libby, which both have satellite clinics.

Tester said he recently visited Southwest Montana Community Health in Butte, and the visit reinforced his concerns and added to his sense of urgency.

“They emphasized if the community health center fund is not reauthorized, it would force them to cut back many of the services they offer their patients, most of whom are underserved and uninsured,” Tester said.

“This isn’t just a health-care issue,” he added. “When health-care facilities pack up and potentially close down in these small communities it is a death knell for rural America.”

Health centers are used to their federal funding being in limbo, Anderson said.

“We’ve been in this position before … the last four years we’ve gone off the fiscal cliff,” she said.

When this situation arises, Anderson explained, Montana’s community health centers “have to put the breaks on some planning,” such as not moving forward with expansion of services. It also makes it “very, very difficult” to hire new providers in the midst of financial uncertainty.

Anderson trusts Montana’s congressional delegation – both Montana’s senators and Rep. Greg Gianforte express support for health-center funding – but she said “they’re just three out of 535” members of Congress who need to move the issue forward.

“We’re just waiting for other national priorities to break through right now,” Anderson said.

She expects Congress to pass a continuing resolution to extend funding until at least Dec. 31, though these resolutions just “push the consequences further down the road.”

Anderson hopes Congress will eventually pass a five-year authorization for the bulk of the health-center funding instead of another two-year extension. But currently the outlook for such a long-term authorization is nor promising.

“Unfortunately it’s deja vu all over again in Washington; dysfunction is grinding the appropriations process to a halt,” Tester said.

Tester joined 26 of his colleagues in an Oct. 18 letter sent to Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, expressing support for long-term funding for community health centers. The bipartisan letter was also signed by Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

The bill on the table is the Community Health Investment, Modernization, and Excellence (CHIME) Act of 2019, which includes money for the Community Health Center Fund.

The letter states that if the fund expires, community health centers will lose 70% of their federal grant funding, which would cause an estimated 2,400 site closures, 47,000 lost jobs and threaten the health care of approximately 9 million Americans.

“Some centers will soon have to take steps in anticipation of a funding lapse, including reducing staff and operating hours, canceling capital projects, or even preparing to close their doors,” the letter reads.

“Community health centers have maintained strong support from both sides of the aisle for over 50 years,” it adds.

“The truth is every one in the state – whether it’s Havre, whether it’s Missoula, whether it’s Hardin – it doesn’t matter, they’re all at-risk,” Tester said.

“If we lose these … The staff will find jobs at other places and coming together and funding, it will be too late.”

“I’m an optimist, I think we’ll get it done, but until it’s done it’s not done,” he added.

Reporter Colin Gaiser may be reached at 758-4439 or at cgaiser@dailyinterlake.com

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