The U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) held a hearing on March 2 focusing on how Community Health Centers save lives and dollars. Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a longtime champion of health centers, underscored in opening remarks that investing in primary care should be a key priority:
“Our challenge right now is to do the right thing for the American people–say that when you are sick there will be a medical home for you to go to. And our other job right now is to say that, in a health care system which spends $13,000 per person– that’s an insane amount of money, double what any other country spends–that we understand when we invest in primary health care we save the system money.”
Sanders pledged to work in a bipartisan manner to build a primary care system that works for the American people.
NACHC Board Member Sue Veer Testifies
Among the panel of expert witnesses who testified before lawmakers was Sue Veer, a NACHC Board Member and President and CEO of Carolina Health Centers, Inc., which has been caring for patients in rural South Carolina for nearly 40 years. Veer described her health centers’ efforts to coordinate care and integrate services to manage each patient’s health. She explained how health centers encourage more appropriate and effective use of health care services among patients and results in improved health outcomes, reduced hospital emergency room visits, and lower costs:
“Through outreach, education, and care coordination services, we are often able to alter a lifelong and even multigenerational pattern of inappropriate use of health care services, resulting in significant and long-term savings to the health care delivery system. Often times, this also results in better care management and improved health outcomes.”
Veer also described the financial challenges health centers confront, including rising inflation and attacks on the 340B federal discount drug program.
Veer went on to note that studies indicate a significant reduction in utilization of emergency room services for nearly 70% of the patients that establish a medical home with a health center.
Witnesses Addressed Health Centers’ Role in Rural Areas, Data on Costs
Ben Harvey, Chief Executive Office of the Indiana Primary Health Care Association, also testified and described the rural health care landscape in his state, including the rise of substance use disorders as manufacturing jobs left the state and rural hospitals closed, limiting access to services. Harvey explained that when a rural hospital closes it can have detrimental impacts on health and the economy. In Indiana, “health centers have stepped into the void” in a lot of those areas to provide continuity of services, work with existing critical access hospitals, and support the local community.
Dr. Robert Nocon, Assistant Professor for Kaiser Permanente Bernard J. Tyson School of Medicine, testified that there is a “large body of evidence” demonstrating the value of health centers. Dr. Nocon highlighted data showing health centers’ record in quality of care and lower costs, noting, “similar or better levels of performance on quality measures, such as prevention of unnecessary hospitalizations and completion of recommended child visits…. [W]e estimate that health centers resulted in a cost savings of over 25 billion a year from reduced payments from Medicaid and Medicare.”
Senators Express Support for Health Centers
In the Q&A portion, almost every committee member who spoke praised the health centers in their state for doing indispensable work. Sen. Sanders kicked off the discussion by asking witnesses their views on the expansion of health centers. Members also asked questions about changes to the 340B program, workforce challenges, and other funding issues affecting health centers, including the outlook for reauthorizing health center funding (which expires in September).
“Getting this and other reauthorizations done on time and in a fiscally responsible way is my priority,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Ranking Member of the HELP Committee.
To watch a recording of the hearing and read the formal testimony submitted by all witnesses, visit the HELP Committee hearing page.