Minnesota Health Center Leader Urges Funding Extension for Safety Net Programs

Mike Holmes testifies on funding extension for safety net programs

Mike Holmes testifying before a House Subcommittee on the critical role of Community Health Centers.

Today a rural Minnesota health center CEO told lawmakers that the effect on his health center and patients would be “immediate and severe” if Congress fails to extend funding for the Federal Health Centers Program.

Mike Holmes, Chief Executive Officer of Cook Area Health Services, a health center that cares for more than 12,000 patients in rural northern Minnesota, described to a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee how the medically underserved community his health center serves would be affected if Congress did not act to reauthorize the Community Health Center Fund (CHCF).

“The loss of over $2,000,000 in annual funding would leave us no choice but to close a minimum of two to three access points,” said Holmes. “As a result there will be no care in these communities. For many of our patients, medical or dental care will be 40 to 50 miles away and, as with most rural communities, there is no public transportation. We would also have to eliminate services and reduce staff. There are no good options in dealing with this type of funding reduction. System-wide, this level of disruption would inevitably drive up costs across the health care system, as more and more patients would turn to costlier settings like hospital emergency rooms for routine primary and preventive care, or simply forgo that care.”

The hearing focused on the extension of funding for federal safety net health programs that provide health care and coverage for low-income adults and children – the Federal Health Centers Program and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.   Recognizing the critical importance of a strong primary care infrastructure in the health care delivery system, Congress authorized additional funds back in 2010 to help grow the program and meet the growing demand for preventive care. Thanks to that investment, health centers have added 6 million patients and 1,100 new sites. Holmes also described how health centers have been able to ramp up other important services, such as dental and behavioral health.

“Compared to 2010, in 2015 the number of behavioral health visits at health centers grew by 57 percent and the number of dental visits grew by 43 percent,” he said. “At our health center, CHCF investments have allowed us to add a new access point in Tower, MN. They have also helped us expand dental services in three other communities and to significantly expand our care coordination services.”

In an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, Congress extended the CHCF authorization in 2015 for two additional years as one of the health extender provisions included in the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act, or MACRA. The extension expires September 30th. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that if Congress fails to pass legislation to extend the funding 2,800 health center sites will be closed, over 50,000 jobs will be lost, and, most important, and 9 million patients nationwide would lose access to care.

Holmes told the panel that such cuts would come as “Health centers are on the front lines of nearly every major health crisis our country faces.” Health centers are a critical part of the response to public health threats like the Zika virus and the Flint water crisis Holmes also underscored how health centers are playing a key role in the nationwide opioid epidemic and are beefing up their capacity to provide comprehensive substance use disorder treatment in response.

To view Holmes’ full testimony before the Health Subcommittee on Energy and Commerce please visit this link.