Congress needs to fix the Community Health Center funding ‘cliff’ (column) | VailDaily.com

Congress needs to fix the Community Health Center funding ‘cliff’ (column)

Ross Brooks

An especially virulent flu season is underway, and the number of opioid overdoses continues to climb, yet our public health is more vulnerable than ever because Community Health Centers such as Mountain Family Health Centers are running out of time and money.

Critical funding for our program expired Oct. 1, 2017. Since then, all health centers have been operating under a "funding cliff." This phrase alone would lead one to think that this is an issue solely about money. It is much more, however. It is about people and how decisions made or left unmade by Congress can have a ripple effect.

When people are sick, they need an accessible place to go for affordable care, regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay. At Mountain Family Health Centers, we believe health care is a human right, not a privilege. We are doing everything we can to ensure our doors remain open and our patients receive the best quality of care. However, the loss of our federal base funding and will limit our ability to achieve this goal.

Mountain Family Health Centers, this region's Community Health Center, provides essential integrated primary medical, behavioral (mental health and substance use disorders) and dental health care to more than 19,000 people over the past 18 months in Garfield, Eagle, Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties on Colorado's Western Slope. Eighty-five percent of our patients live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($50,200 for a family of four) and 76 percent are enrolled in Medicaid or are uninsured, with limited options for health care providers accepting their insurance or lack of insurance. Many of our patients are living in fear due to the current administration's immigration policy moves. These individuals and families are our neighbors, our friends, our community.

The federal Department of Health and Human Services itself has projected the impact of the funding cliff will result in the closure of 2,800 health center locations, elimination of more than 50,000 jobs, and a loss of access to care for more than 9 million patients. Locally, this is already happening. Mountain Family has had to decrease staff, and if the cliff continues, will be forced to consolidate operations. This despite the high level of need and increasing demand for our services. This is the looming reality.

Health care for more than 27 million people is being run on a month-to-month basis because Congress has failed to extend funding for our program. This is not how a health system should run — particularly the Community Health Center program which has served the nation so well in terms of saving lives and dollars. Health centers such as ours have been in place for more than 50 years, opening access to care and providing a more affordable option for preventive care than a hospital emergency room. Nationally, Community Health Centers generate $24 billion in health care cost savings, and locally, Mountain Family generates $18.1 million in these annually.

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There is little doubt that health centers have contributed significantly to cost savings for the American taxpayer. Our record of success is why our program has earned bipartisan support from U.S. presidents and lawmakers, including both our Colorado senators, Michael Bennett and Cory Gardener and our Congressional representatives including Scott Tipton. Here is the bitter irony behind the health center funding cliff: most everyone agrees that Congress should extend funding and act now. Funding for Community Health Centers must be included in the federal funding legislators consider this week. Lawmakers must move beyond the political debate and focus on public health.

Ross Brooks is chief executive officer of Mountain Family Health Centers, http://www.mountainfamily.org.