Health care is one of the most divisive political issues any policymaker has to work on. Every decision made in Congress has real impact on people’s lives and people’s health, every day.
As Congress continues to debate how best to move our health care system to one that is focused on patient needs, greater access, higher quality and lower cost, there is one solution virtually every legislator agrees on: Community Health Centers, or CHCs. With critical funding set to expire Sept. 30, we need Congress to prioritize action to maintain and build on this health care success story.
Begun more than 50 years ago, CHCs today are in 11,000 communities across the country, and are the nation’s largest primary care network. CHCs offer comprehensive, high-quality health care to everyone who walks through the doors – more than 27 million people nationally. That means 1 in 12 Americans go to a CHC for his/her health care. More striking, 1 in 6 Americans in rural areas, 1 in 10 children, and 1 in 3 Americans living in poverty get their care at a CHC.
Little River Medical Center, with sites in Little River, Loris, Carolina Forest, Myrtle Beach (2) and Surfside, leverages nearly $6.753 million to serve more than 30,000 patients. Seventy percent of our patients live at or below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. About 40 percent are uninsured. Health centers make a difference in the lives of our neighbors and the health of our community.
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Certainly, Congress has a full plate this fall. But one thing it must prioritize is the extension of the Health Center Fund. If Congress does not act, health centers will face an immediate 70 percent cut in federal funding. According the Health and Human Services’ numbers, that would lead to the closing of some 2,800 health center locations, the elimination of more than 50,000 jobs and, most importantly, the loss of access to care for some 9 million patients nation-wide.
For Little River Medical Center, this would mean a loss of nearly $4.8 million, and almost 5,400 patients would lose access to care.
That’s not just a humanitarian disaster, it’s a fiscal one as well. If patients don’t have access to primary health care in their communities, they turn to the hospital emergency rooms for costly primary care, or defer care until their health problems are more serious and more costly. Research backs that up: A 2016 study showed that when patients on Medicaid get their care at a community health center, their total cost of care was lower by 24 percent.
Congress has invested in CHCs, on a bipartisan basis and through successive administrations, bringing new health care centers to communities in need, and adding services like dental care and substance abuse treatment. With so much uncertainty in our health care system, Congress must build on this consensus and success. Congress must act, before Sept. 30, to extend the Health Centers Fund to at least five years with at least current spending levels in place.
Community health centers needs your help and support to make this happen. Please call Sen. Lindsey Graham, Sen. Tim Scott, or Rep. Tom Rice, call 1-866-456-3949, enter your zip code to be connected to your legislators. To email, contact Sen. Tim Scott at www.scott.senate.gov, Sen. Lindsey Graham at www.lgraham.senate.gov, and Rep. Tom Rice at www.rice.house.gov.
Thank you for doing what you can to keep America’s health care safety net strong.
The writer is a family physician, Chief Medical Officer for Little River Medical Center and has worked in community health centers for the last 15 years.