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The Journal Gazette

  • File Angie Zaegel, CEO of Neighborhood Health Clinics, works at the Parkview Neighborhood Health Center shortly after its 2014 opening. Continuing funding for Neighborhood Health Clinics is in congressional limbo.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017 1:00 am

Editorial

Critical condition

Inaction leaves funding for health centers at risk

Make your voice heard

To send a message to members of Congress through the National Association of Community Health Centers advocacy hotline, call 866-456-3949.

The last-minute struggle to replace the Affordable Care Act has deflected attention from other, more constructive things Congress should be doing.

One is reauthorization of the act that provides key support for the nation's federally qualified health centers, including Fort Wayne's Neighborhood Health Clinics. Authorization expires at the end of this week.

A bipartisan measure, House Bill 3770, is before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee but may not be moved in time. 

That is particularly unfortunate because the network of community health centers has been an important part of health care in underserved areas since the late 1960s.

There is said to be some disagreement between Republicans and Democrats over the amount of funding and the duration of the authorization this time around, but no one seems to be against federally qualified health centers.

Indeed, it would be rather difficult to work up much outrage about a system that provides health care to millions of Americans so effectively.

The local center last year served 15,644 medical and dental patients who may have no other practical way to get health care. It has helped many patients obtain health coverage through HIP 2.0. Those who have no coverage are asked to pay what they can. No one is turned away.

But Neighborhood Health Clinics could lose $2.3 million a year and be forced to reduce its workforce by 12 percent if the reauthorization issue is not resolved, CEO Angie Zaegel said last Friday, and the center has imposed a partial freeze on hiring.

The situation could be compounded if Congress were to pass measures reducing Medicaid, which provides coverage to many of the center's clients.

“That would be the perfect storm,” Zaegel said.

Spokespersons for U.S. Rep. Jim Banks and U.S. Sens. Todd Young and Joe Donnelly all indicated they are following the community health centers funding issue.

Last Tuesday, Donnelly was among a bipartisan group of senators who sent a letter to Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, urging action. Failure to reauthorize the funding, the senators wrote, could force 2,800 center sites to close, as well as cost 50,000 jobs.

Nine million Americans could lose access to care, Donnelly and his cosigners wrote. Zaegel estimates more than 3,000 patients could lose health care access in Fort Wayne.

The hope is that even if lawmakers miss the deadline this week, they will focus on community health care centers after the last-chance efforts to kill Obamacare are resolved.

Revisiting the issue quickly would mitigate the damage already being done to centers whose future is in limbo.

“As small businesses, health centers need predictability to secure financing for capital projects, to sign contracts, to recruit and retain providers and staff and to sustain operations,” the senators wrote. “We are already hearing of the disruptive effects of the uncertainty created by the impending funding cliff ... this disruption will increase significantly without an extension of funding by September 30.” 

This is not an Obaman-Trumpian ideological battle. It is the simple reauthorization of a humane program that has worked well for decades.

“In an ideal scenario, this would already have been done,” a House staffer said this week.

Those who care about the future of health care in general and of Neighborhood Health Clinics in particular should call on Congress to get off its duff and reauthorize funding now.