Health centers' funding at risk

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BELOIT - Health centers that serve the uninsured and underinsured in Rock County could see deep funding cuts, up to 70 percent, if congressional action isn't taken by this week's deadline to extend funding to community clinics.

If action isn't taken to extend funding to health centers, clinics in Wisconsin could lose $29 million in funding with the Health Centers Fund set to expire. The fund was established as part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act legislation, and the loss in funding would mean scores of uninsured or under-insured could lose access to quality health care.

In Beloit and Janesville, over 2,183 patients that frequent the Beloit Area Community Health Center could lose needed health care, according to an analysis done by the center. Across the state, up to 30,000 could see health benefits disappear.

Also coinciding with the deadline, the Children's Health Insurance program would expire Sept. 30.

Julie Sprecher, CEO of the Beloit and Janesville CHS clinics, called the possible "funding cliff" a "catastrophe."

"Congress's failure to address this funding cliff by the end of the week will have one immediate effect for us locally: it will drastically limit our ability to serve our more than 2,000 local patients who are uninsured, and are able to affordably access our services using our sliding-fee scale," Sprecher said.

Locally, Beloit sees $2 million in federal grant funding, which would disappear if the extension isn't granted. The grant total makes up nearly a quarter of the clinic's $8.3 million budget.

The clinic would also be at risk of losing out on funding to bring National Health Service Corps providers to the clinic.

Any impact to federally-backed clinics in the Stateline Area and elsewhere would also stress privately funded clinics, said HealthNet of Rock County CEO Ian Hedges.

"They need that funding to keep serving the most vulnerable," Hedges said. "If one piece lacks funding more vulnerable residents will not have access to quality care. Even small cuts puts a burden on the entire system in place that serves those lacking access to quality care."

HealthNet sees funding through state grants, local community development block grants and private donations, while CHS in Beloit sees federal funding to help hire doctors and offer sliding pay scales for patients. The federal funding given to Beloit's clinic is made possible through federally-approved formulas dictating how funds are allocated.

CHS would not see any direct staffing cuts from the loss of funding, with the clinic employing 68 staff, from providers to administrators.

On Monday, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) confirmed to CHS he was a co-signer of the CHIME Act, a bill that would secure health center funding for five years.

Pocan issued a statement Monday condemning ongoing efforts in Congress he said are "ripping health care away" from millions.

"Community health centers have a strong role in serving the needs of Wisconsinites across our state and I urge Congress to take up this legislation immediately," Pocan said.

Nationally, the 2,800 federally-funded clinics are estimated to save more than $24 billion annually by reducing the number of hospital visits and helping patients manage chronic health problems, according to the National Association of Community Health Centers.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin said she fully supports efforts being made in the House to extend the funding deadline, calling centers like Beloit "critical to maintaining access to affordable, local care for Wisconsin families."

"The clock is ticking, so it's all hands on deck to save our clinics from this impending funding cliff," Baldwin said.

The fear of funding cuts doesn't just sit with health care providers. This week's deadline marks a key appropriations deadline for all ranges of government.

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