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Valley News Dispatch

Community health clinics anxiously await Congressional vote on funding

Madasyn Czebiniak
| Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, 1:12 p.m.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017.

The House of Representatives and Senate did not approve a stopgap budget Thursday that would prevent a government shutdown at midnight and provide federal funding to Community Health Centers.

Jim Willshier, a director of a state association that represents such centers, was hopeful that the budget deal could be reached in order for center funding to continue uninterrupted.

“It's been the closest that Congress has been to addressing this issue,” said Willshier, director of policy and partnership for the Pennsylvania Association of Community Health Centers.

Willshier spoke Thursday afternoon, expecting a vote that did not come. The Senate was expected to pass its budget version early today but its fate in the House was uncertain.

The House proposal includes two years of Community Health Center funding at $7 billion and an extension of the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) for four years.

Willshier said the funding would allow the roughly 1,400 free or low-cost health care centers across the United States to continue to run without future reductions.

“It's a two-year plan, so it's not permanent, but it fixes the cliff for the foreseeable future,” he said. “It opens the door that they're able to continue services without this pressure of a ‘what-if?' ”

Community health centers have been worried about their funding since September, when the $5.1 billion that funded them for two years expired.

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), which funds the centers, has been using $550 million appropriated from an earlier stopgap measure, as well as carryover funds, to keep them running.

But that will expire April 30.

Without the measure, every health care center in the nation would experience a reduction of up to 70 percent in the federal funding they receive from HRSA, according to the health centers association.

The uncertainty has forced some Pennsylvania health care centers to come up with contingency plans. Some are looking at closing sites, laying off employees and reducing hours and services.

Willshier said if the measure doesn't pass, more health care centers will likely announce plans of layoffs or reductions of services.

The loss of health centers would be a blow to the millions of people who rely on them. They see anyone regardless of their insurance or ability to pay.

In 2016, such centers served nearly 26 million Americans, or 1 in 12 people. Those numbers included 1 in 10 children, 1 in 3 people living in poverty and more than 330,000 veterans.

Raji Jayakrishnan, the executive director of New Kensington's Community Health Clinic, which has offices in New Kensington and Vandergrift, could not be immediately reached for comment. The health care center offers medical, dental and behavioral health services.

Community Health Clinic previously told the Tribune-Review that it stood to lose 70 percent of its operating budget of just under $2 million if Congress doesn't act.

Officials were hopeful that Congress would grant them the funding they need to continue to serve the community.

Community Health Clinic sees almost 3,000 patients per year.

Madasyn Czebiniak is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4702, mczebiniak@tribweb.com or via Twitter @maddyczebstrib.

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