We must fund community health centers now

BY SEN. BERNIE SANDERS — 
This piece originally appeared in The Hill

Under the radar of most Americans and the mainstream media is a looming crisis that could strip health care from millions of people and result in the loss of tens of thousands of good paying jobs. With the funding deadline for community health centers having lapsed over a month ago, Congress must act right now or 70 percent of funding will be cut, and the doors of 2,800 health centers will close.

Community health centers are an integral part of our nation’s health care system. They provide affordable, high-quality primary care to over 27 million people – including dental and counseling services and access to low-cost prescription drugs. For 13 million people living in rural communities, they are often the only health care provider for many miles. For those living in underserved urban areas, they offer much-needed care on a sliding-fee scale.

Community health centers also help to relieve the burden of our nation’s overly wasteful health care system by generating more than $49 billion in savings each year. Compared to other providers, they save on average $2,371 per Medicaid patient and up to $1,210 per Medicare patient. Instead of ending up in expensive emergency room care, or in the hospital, patients get the high-quality primary care they need, when they need it.

Historically, the community health center program has enjoyed widespread bipartisan support, and that support continues. Today, along with almost all Democrats, there are a number of Republicans who fully understand how important these centers are to the well-being of their states and want to see the program refunded.

The bipartisan Senate bill that was introduced by Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) reauthorizes the community health center program for five years and includes modest funding increases. The Senate proposal will help ensure that the 27 million people currently served by community health centers will not lose access to affordable, quality health care. The bill also expands and improves the National Health Service Corps–the program that provides debt forgiveness for young doctors, nurses, dentists and mental health providers preparing to work in our country’s most underserved areas. Without debt forgiveness, it is very difficult to attract new doctors to serve in these communities as this incredibly important work is typically underpaid. This bill will be supported by virtually every member of the Democratic caucus and already has nine Republican co-sponsors.

If we continue to delay funding for community health centers, the consequences could be dire. Millions of low-income and working people will no longer be able to access the health care, dental care, mental health counseling and low-cost prescription drugs they desperately need. Pregnant women will not be able to get the prenatal care they require in order to have healthy babies. Chronically ill seniors won’t have access to the prescription drugs they have used for years. And the astonishingly high number of people being treated for opioid and heroin addiction may not get the second chance they deserve.

Congress must act immediately in a bipartisan fashion to fully fund community health centers, and the workforce programs that provide them with the well-trained staffing they need. The time for delay is over. The time to act is now.

This piece originally appeared in The Hill