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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, January 24, 2018 1:00 am


'Clock is ticking', Health-center funding needs attention too

Along with DACA, a pair of essential federal health programs were caught in the maelstrom of Washington politics last fall. Lawmakers have been promising to act on them for months.

This end of the governmental shutdown Monday kicked any decision on DACA a few weeks down the road. But last weekend's congressional deadlock ended with one bright spot: funding was approved for CHIP, the Children's Health Insurance Plan, which provides medical care for more than 9 million children, including 115,000 in Indiana.

When Congress had failed to reauthorize CHIP at the end of September despite a tradition of bipartisan support, it also failed to reauthorize the Community Health Center Fund, another widely valued, high-impact program. The fund supports health centers that serve 27 million Americans who struggle with health care costs or live in underserved communities. In Indiana, Fort Wayne's Neighborhood Health Clinics is one of 19 such centers serving almost half a million Hoosiers. Unfortunately, health-center funding was not included in the deal that ended the shutdown Monday.

“The clock is ticking for the health centers just as it was for the CHIP program,” Neighborhood Health Clinics President and CEO Angie Zaegel said Tuesday. “There is not much time left before health centers throughout the state will have to make tough decisions such as closing clinic locations, reducing staff and patient services, eliminating programs, delaying capital projects just to name a few,” she wrote in an email.

Already under an anticipatory partial hiring freeze, Neighborhood Health Clinics, which faces a $2.3 million budget reduction at the end of April, would have to deny service to up to 3,000 low-income clients. Some health centers in other states may be forced to close.

Uncertainty about the future of a program that's been serving local residents for decades is already taking its toll. “For us, the biggest thing is that we want to expand our services and take on some new initiatives to meet the needs of the community,” Zaegel said.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday the Community Health Center Fund may be wrapped into the next round of congressional negotiations before the government-funding alarm clock goes off again Feb. 8.

But that would mean the program would have to find traction alongside the effort to save Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which prevents the deportation of a group of about 800,000 immigrants brought to America as children a decade or more ago.

Though it has wide Democratic and Republican support, efforts so far to address the Dreamers program have failed, and it is facing an even tighter deadline – March 5.

There are 10,000 Dreamers in Indiana – hundreds in Fort Wayne – and their plight must be addressed.

But concern about DACA doesn't give lawmakers an excuse to let the community health center system founder.

During a phone conference on the aftermath of the shutdown Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., pledged to work with other moderates to keep the issue on the table.

“We're really focused on the community health centers, because they do so much good work,” Donnelly said. “We are going to focus on trying to get this done as quickly as possible.”