Thousands of Community Health Center advocates are finally gathering under one roof in Washington, D.C., for the 2023 NACHC Policy and Issues Forum. No lie — it feels like coming home again. The atmosphere is jubilant, and attendees are excited about making their voices heard. The last in-person NACHC Policy and Issues Forum was held in 2019. Now it’s a new era and a new beautiful conference location at the Marriott Marquis, just a few short miles from the Capitol.
There has been a lot of activity leading up to the conference, including the release of the NACHC report, “Closing The Primary Care Gap,” which shows that over 100 million Americans face barriers to accessing primary care. Health center leaders were also on Capitol Hill last week before the Senate Health Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee to make the case for long term and reliable funding as expiration of mandatory funding draws closer.
NACHC Board Chair Mike Holmes kicked off today’s General Session by outlining the challenges ahead for health centers. “While our Mission remains unwavering, our workforce and resources continue to be stretched too thin, our federal funding is once again at risk, and outside forces are once again exerting pressure on key programs that our patients and centers rely upon,” he said. “So it is precisely for all these reasons that we gather here in Washington, DC, once again.”
Remarks from Members of Congress Representing Both Sides of the Aisle
Bipartisan support for long-term base funding for health centers, strengthening the workforce, and protecting 340B are key themes and discussion points. And much to the delight of attendees, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Chair of the Senate HELP Committee, echoed his support for these critical issues during an impromptu and rousing speech at the General Session.
“We need to make sure that every person in this country can have all the primary care they need to access to a Community Health Center in the neighborhood in which they live… That is not a radical proposal,” Sanders said. Noting that health centers are not a “Democratic program or a Republican program,” and that an expansion of their reach “saves lives and saves money.”
Sanders also added that “the solution to addressing the dysfunctionality of the current [health care] system is to recognize that, whether you are rich or poor or middle class, health care is a human right and not a privilege.”
Sanders’ appearance followed several members of Congress representing both parties who sent recorded remarks, including the Ranking Member of the HELP Committee, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), who pledge to work in a bipartisan manner to support health centers “in a way that taxpayers can afford.”
Also, House Representatives Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, expressed their support for health centers and the importance of affordable access to primary care. A key theme emerging in the General Session remarks was the work health centers did to protect public health during COVID-19. But it was Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, Director of the CDC, who distilled the health center heroism on the front lines of the pandemic in her recorded statement:
“Working in hand in hand in the public health community, you played a critical role in carrying out one of the largest vaccination efforts in U.S history, with 70 percent given to minorities… You saved countless lives.”
Building the Health Center Movement of the Future
Interim President and CEO Rachel Gonzales-Hanson reminded advocates about what is at stake for health centers and patients:
“If the people in our communities back home come to understand that they have the power to affect change to strengthen the health center movement, they will also come to recognize that they have the power to affect the social drivers of health where they live – and the power to build healthier communities for their friends and families. This is how we build and prepare our Army of Advocates which will benefit our Movement well into the future. We cannot and will not leave any health center patient behind. We must lift as we grow.”
Geiger Gibson Awardees Honored
We should also note that today’s General Session started with a ceremony honoring the Emerging Leaders of the Community Health Center Movement [see press release]. NACHC does this each year in collaboration with the Geiger Gibson Program in Community Health at the George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH)
View highlights from the rest of P&I here.