Funding anxiety high at Community Health Center

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BELOIT - Federal funding uncertainties continue to cause anxiety for health centers that serve uninsured and underinsured patients across the state and nation, including the Beloit Area Community Health Center (BACHC).

Lynn Vollbrecht, business development and marketing manager for Community Health Systems (CHS), said even though Congress passed a short-term continuing resolution extending government funding through Jan. 19, this was a very temporary solution allowing these agencies to scrape by until March with minimum funding.

Vollbrecht said health centers have been facing this "funding cliff" for months.

The BACHC's annual budget is $8.3 million. Of that, $2 million is federal grant money from the Health Center Fund, or 24 percent of the overall center's budget.

"I want to make it clear to our patients that we're not in danger of closing right now, but health centers across the country are not as lucky as us," Vollbrecht said. "We here in Beloit are in as good of shape as we can be given the circumstances, but that doesn't mean health centers across the state and country aren't being affected by this."

For CHS's clinics specifically, failure to fix the funding cliff would not directly lead to staff layoffs. Vollbrecht said the most specific threat to CHS is that it would impair the health system's ability to care for its uninsured patient population, which is about 2,183 patients of the annual 13,000 to 14,000 patients seen. She said approximately 70 percent of CHS's patients are insured through Medicare or Medicaid, 20 percent are underinsured and 10 percent have private insurance.

Community Health Systems also has eight providers who are part of the National Health Service Corps, funding that is also currently at risk.

"As of right now, we're OK operationally, but we won't be able to grow at all if this funding cliff isn't fixed," Vollbrecht said.

She said CHS representatives have been in touch with Speaker Paul Ryan's office before the holidays, but "understandably tax reform dominated every federal legislator's agenda before the holidays."

"One of the great things is that every legislator I've talked to over the course of my tenure here has said great things about health centers," Vollbrecht said. "They all seem to recognize that health centers are a great thing and provide a great service, but now it's time to walk-the-walk and not just talk-the-talk. It's great that they appreciate us and that we receive wise bipartisan support, but we really need to see some action on these funding issues."

Community Health Systems has been meeting with legislators, participating in call-in advocacy days with staff and supporters calling senators and congressional representatives and checking in with Ryan's office for updates on the continuing resolution.

When asked about what happens if the federal funding isn't approved, Vollbrecht said they'll evaluate the situation if it comes to that.

"It's one of those things where we're trying not to make any moves until it's necessary," Vollbrecht said. "Obviously it's always on our minds, but there's no point in trying to make those plans necessarily until something actually happens. Ideally, (in) January we'll have something figured out and we won't have to deal with this again for a minimum of two years."

Beloiters who don't utilize BACHC already can help get involved by becoming a patient.

"I think a lot of people don't understand that we are here for everyone," Vollbrecht said. "While it's our mission to make sure that everyone has great access to care, we're also here for everybody, and we accept private insurance for that reason. And that actually helps us, because if we have people with private insurance it makes us much more able to serve those who are underinsured."

Congressman Mark Pocan, who represents Beloit in Washington, criticized the inaction on funding.

"Speaker Ryan and Republicans in Congress neglected to find a permanent funding solution for community health centers and the Children's Health Insurance Program while they rushed to pass the GOP tax scam before the New Year," Pocan said. "While these programs are funded through March, they deserve a clean, long term funding re-authorization without cuts to other critical public health programs. We cannot continue to fund community health centers and the Children's Health Insurance Program for just a few months at a time, as it hinders the services they can provide to our communities. For that reason, I'm cosponsoring legislation to fully fund them for the next five years and I encourage my Republican colleagues to join me in doing the same."

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