REGIONAL— A deadline for reauthorization of a key funding stream for community health centers came and went on Capitol Hill this past week, but health care advocates say there’s still time to …
REGIONAL— A deadline for reauthorization of a key funding stream for community health centers came and went on Capitol Hill this past week, but health care advocates say there’s still time to finish the job.
“Congress kind of drove the bus off the cliff,” said Mike Holmes, CEO of Cook-based Scenic Rivers Health Services. Holmes is on the executive council for the National Association of Community Health Centers and he has closely tracked progress of the reauthorization measure for months. Holmes was in Washington back in June to testify before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Health. He was there to urge Congress to reauthorize funding for the Community Health Center Trust Fund, which expired Sept. 30. Congress created the trust fund in 2010 as part of passage of the Affordable Care Act and it reauthorized the program for two years in 2015.
Since then, the fund has provided about 70 percent of all federal grants to community health centers and about a fifth of their annual revenues. The funding has allowed Scenic Rivers to expand its service locations, including adding medical and dental clinics in Tower. Scenic Rivers is one of 9,500 community health centers around the country, which serve about 27 million Americans, mostly in low-income communities, or in rural, medically-underserved regions like northern St. Louis, Koochiching, and Itasca counties.
The community center trust fund wasn’t the only major healthcare program that expired Sept. 30, when the 2017 federal fiscal year ended. The children’s health insurance program, or CHIP, also expired, noted Holmes. “The last ditch effort of trying to repeal the ACA, just kind of sucked all the air out of Congress,” he said.
But with an ACA repeal on hold, at least for now, Holmes said he’s seeing signs that Congress will start to focus on the rest of its work. He noted that the same committee that he had testified in front of this summer was planning to mark up its bill for a two-year extension at current funding for the community health center trust fund.
While other events could still derail passage, Holmes remains confident that the funding will ultimately be approved, probably by the end of the month. “I think they know they have to pass this legislation,” he said, noting that community health centers have enjoyed bipartisan support in the past. Indeed, Holmes noted that senators were already circulating a letter of support to fellow senators that includes the signatures of 70 senators, with broad support from both parties.
“Certainly from the health center world, there has been a lot of contact with members of Congress, telling them they need to get this done,” said Holmes.
While the uncertainty is already creating problems for some community health centers, which have had to postpone new hiring as they try to stretch remaining dollars, Holmes said Scenic Rivers will likely avoid those impacts. Funding from the program goes out on a set timetable that is different for the various centers and he said those centers that normally receive their funding in January are the ones facing the greatest uncertainty right now. “I think they have to get this done in the next six weeks or they really start putting pressure on sites.”
Scenic Rivers, by contrast, doesn’t receive its allocation until June 1, and Holmes said he remains reasonably confident that the trust fund reauthorization will be approved well before then.
“Whatever they do will still affect us, but we have a little more time,” he said.
Despite the importance of the reauthorization, Holmes acknowledged that other things could still get in the way.
“They still have to deal with the hurricane relief, and fund the FAA,” he said. “We don’t want planes falling out of the sky.” And Holmes noted that there are a limited number of days for legislative work. “If you look at the congressional calendar, we have Thanksgiving, Christmas, and a week off in October. There are only so many legislative days to get it done.”