Community Health Centers Teeter on Financial Cliff, Courtesy of Congress

By: - September 26, 2019 12:00 am

Parents hold their infant son as a medical assistant gives him a flu shot at the Sea Mar Community Health Center in Seattle. As happened in 2017, Congress is likely to miss the deadline for renewing money for community health centers, which provide treatment for more than 27 million people. Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press

Down in the Louisiana bayou, Dr. Gary Wiltz is wondering how he’s supposed to run 14 community health centers and treat 30,000 patients without a large chunk of federal money. Again.

As happened in 2017, Congress is on the precipice of failing to meet the Sept. 30 deadline for reauthorizing the Community Health Center Fund that supports nearly 1,400 community health centers, which treat more than 27 million predominately poor patients.

As a result — according to a recent survey of community health centers conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation — nearly 60% of centers have frozen hiring or are considering doing so; 42% already have or might reduce staff hours; and 42% have laid off staff or are contemplating it. Many may delay planned renovations or expansions, reduce operating hours or shutter locations.

Two years ago, the money didn’t come through until five months after the deadline, causing some health centers to lay off staff, curtail operating hours and suspend planned building projects and new programs.

Wiltz, CEO of the Teche Action Clinic in sugar cane-rich western Louisiana, said they’re in the same situation now.

“It’s very frustrating and unsettling as an administrator that we have to keep going through this every two years.”

Congressional Democrats and Republicans say they want to provide money for the program, but bills to do so are stalled.

“We saw just how painful it was for communities across the country last time,” U.S. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the ranking Democrat on the Senate health committee, said in an email. “I think no one wants to see that happen again.”

The Republican chairman of the health committee, Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, in an email cited his support for longer funding cycles for community health centers.

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Michael Ollove

Michael Ollove covers health care for Stateline. Ollove worked for many years at The Baltimore Sun, as an enterprise reporter and an editor.