Providers from Montana’s 16 federally qualified community health centers breathed a collective sigh of relief last week as Congress reached a budget measure that continued funding for a system of care that reaches more than 106,000 Montanans, the majority of them living below the poverty level.
The two-year budget deal provides $3.8 billion for the current fiscal year and $4 billion for 2019 to fund community health centers — up from $3.6 billion last year — and offers greater certainty to providers who for more than 130 days hung in limbo waiting in a “holding pattern” for Congress to reauthorize funding.
Jody White, executive director of the Flathead Community Health Center, welcomed the budget deal, which she said would help the center with long-range planning and to better meet the community’s needs.
Still, White said a five-year budget deal would have buoyed her confidence that much more, allowing the health center to recruit and retain top providers.
“Two years is wonderful. It is so much better than operating a couple weeks at a time,” White said. “But is there any hope of a longer-term solution at some point?”
White said she was relieved to learn that funding for the National Health Service Corps was included in the deal. The 40-year-old program helps participants who work at approved sites including community health centers repay their college loans and helps Montana’s centers with hiring and retaining medical care providers.
Community health centers have long enjoyed strong bipartisan support, but funds were allowed to expire at the end of September. As a result, some health centers have had to curtail services, freeze hiring or put off purchases of equipment.
White said the Flathead Community Health Center was able to survive the nearly five-month funding hiatus by digging into its reserves, which saved the center from making any drastic changes. Still, had the funding issue not been resolved, White said she would have had to implement changes by July.
The increase in funds was a victory for U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, who repeatedly took to the Senate floor in recent weeks to urge a funding measure. Tester noted that 106,000 Montanans receive their comprehensive primary care a federally qualified health care center, regardless of their ability to pay. Of the demographics receiving care, 7.9 percent of them American Indian and 4,636 of are veterans.
More than 80 percent of federally qualified health care center patients are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, while 55 percent are at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level.
If the cuts went into effect, an estimated 27,000 patients would lose access to primary healthcare, Tester said.
“They provide incredibly affordable and efficient health care,” Tester said, especially especially in sprawling rural states like Montana.
Tester called the two-year funding for community health centers a “good start,” but said “there’s still much more that needs to be done.”
Ideally, Tester said he’d like to see the Community Health Investment, Modernization and Excellence Act, or CHIME Act, brought to the Senate floor for a vote. The act would extend funding for the Community Health Center Fund for an additional five years.
Tester said a bipartisan group of 19 senators, including himself and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, support the act, which he said he believes would pass the House and Senate.
“We need to give these community health centers the long-term predictability that they deserve,” Tester said in a call to reporters. “In Montana, these centers are the backbone of much of our health care delivery system. They provide affordable access to care keeping our families healthy. Over 10 percent of Montanans go to community health care centers. Eighty-five percent are low income. Twenty-thousand are children. I am pleased to see this progress in the budget.”