In its first hearing of the 116th Congress, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee heard from leaders of Community Health Centers from around the country who described the growing demand for continued- and long-term funding to support their mission of delivering high quality, cost-effective primary care to 28 million people.
The hearing, “Access to Care: Health Centers and Providers in Underserved Communities,” follows the recently introduced bill, S.192, by Senate HELP Committee leaders Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA), which would extend funding for Community Health Centers, the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) and the Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education program (THCGME) for five years. Funding for each of these programs is set to expire at the end of September, unless Congress acts prior to this deadline.
“Community Health Centers are one way American families can have access to affordable health care close to home,” said HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN). “This includes a wide range of health care, including preventive care that helps manage chronic conditions like asthma, or high blood pressure, vaccines and prenatal care.”
“This time last year, Community Health Centers across the country were forced to cut back hours, staff, and services, and halt planned expansions. Like in Spokane, Washington—where new opioid-addiction treatment services, initiated to combat the opioid epidemic, were jeopardized by the funding freeze. Or on the Olympic Peninsula—where plans to expand behavioral health services were also put on hold. Or in Whatcom County—where they considered canceling construction plans for new medical, dental, and behavioral health care facilities,” said HELP Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray in her opening remarks.
Tom Trompeter, President and Chief Executive Officer of HealthPoint, a health center based in King County, outside Seattle, WA, told lawmakers, “In addition to emphasizing the essential role our base federal grant plays in providing high quality primary care to underserved communities, I would like to thank you for the recent supplemental funding for increased access to critical integrated mental health and substance use disorder services.”
Trompeter also highlighted the role health centers are playing in addressing the nationwide opioid crisis. “The opioid epidemic in our service area continues to increase, with no end in sight. As a Federally Qualified Health Center, HealthPoint is at the forefront of responding to this community-wide crisis. We are dedicated to meeting the challenge by removing barriers and providing opportunities for more high-risk patients to access care.”
Dennis Freeman, PhD, President of Cherokee Health Systems, which operates 23 clinics in Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga, TN, highlighted Tennessee’s health care challenges that mirror the nation’s. “During economic hard times people lose employment, employers stop providing insurance and more people show up on our doorstep needing heath care they can afford.” Freeman continued, “The increases in our grant over the years have been for expansions into new geographic areas or for new programs. The increases have allowed us to open new offices in underserved areas and expand or start new programs.”
The Senate hearing also focused on the National Health Service Corps and the Teaching Health Center Program – which are integral to building the primary care workforce critically needed in medically underserved communities. These programs, along with Community Health Centers, require secure funding over the long-term to continue meeting the demand for primary health care services.
Health center providers who also testified at the hearing were: John B. Waits, MD, Chief Executive Officer of Cahaba Medical Care, Centreville, AL; and, Andrea Anderson, MD, Director of Family Medicine and Core Faculty, Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education, Unity Health Care, Inc., Washington, DC
To view hearing and read the full text of their testimony please visit this link.