Several years ago the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) launched a bold initiative to double the capacity of Health Centers across the country and reach 30 million patients by 2015. As providers of quality, affordable, accessible primary and preventive care (the most cost-effective forms of health care) regardless of an individual’s insurance status or income level, Community Health Centers are becoming the providers of choice for increasing numbers of Americans and a crux of the U.S. health care system. The nationwide network of non-profit Health Centers has a 45-year track record of achieving significant returns on investment in terms of savings, economic benefits, and health improvement, thus improving access to care at low cost for people who might otherwise not have access to any care at all.
Unfortunately the Access for All America initiative suffered a severe blow last week when House Speaker Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Reid, and President Obama reached a budget deal to fund government programs for the remaining six months of fiscal year 2011. According to summary documents released by the House Appropriations Committee Majority, HR 1473 reduces discretionary funding for the Health Centers program by $600 million relative to the FY 2010-enacted level of $2.19 billion.
While the Department of Health and Human Services has 30 days to provide a spending or operating plan and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) will make key policy decisions in the days and weeks to come, it is expected that Health Center funding for the remainder of FY 2011 will be sufficient to continue ongoing operations and services at the 8,000 existing Health Centers across the country.
That means very little funding will be available to support expansion efforts. At least 800 organizations across the country submitted New Access Point applications for funding in FY 2011, including 24 Michigan organizations of which 17 are existing Federally Qualified Health Centers. In addition, nearly every Health Center across the country applied for Expanded Services funding. According to a NACHC blog post, “HR 1473 leaves HRSA unable to fund all of these new opportunities; instead, the agency will have to make difficult choices about the few awards to make.”
As a result, Health Centers will lose the ability to expand to serve an additional 5 million patients this year alone. Where will these people go for the primary and preventive care they need to stay healthy? How will they afford the care necessary to manage chronic conditions like diabetes and asthma? Unfortunately, many of these people will turn to more expensive types of care, or completely stop seeking the care they need. Under the expansion plan, Health Centers were projected to save up to $122 billion in total health care costs between 2010 and 2015. The $600 million funding cut will result in the loss of a $6.9 billion annual cost savings to the health care system.
While the House and Senate passed the funding bill last week, and President Obama signed it into law on April 15, it is important that legislative leaders understand the impact these cuts will have and commit to protecting and preserving the Health Centers program and the resources necessary to improve health outcomes, narrow health disparities, and reduce health care costs in the years to come.