MISSOULA — With federal funding for community health centers set to expire in November, Sen. Jon Tester on Thursday said concern among Montana providers is on the rise as uncertainty mounts.
The Community Health Center Fund sunsets on Nov. 21, and the appropriations process remains mired in what Tester described as Washington dysfunction. Without the surety of funding, he said, many centers could face challenges moving forward.
“If the fund is not reauthorized, it will likely force centers to cut back many of the services they offer their patients, most of whom are underserved and uninsured,” Tester told the Missoula Current. “It’s not just a health care issue; when health care centers pack up, it’s a death knell for rural America.”
Tester said the state is home to 17 community health centers that together operate more than 65 delivery sites. Together, they serve roughly 100,000 patients.
Partnership Health Center in Missoula served roughly 16,000 individuals last year and counted more than 66,000 patient visits. While its bottom line is solid, federal funding is key to many of its programs.
“We’re fiscally very careful so we can ensure that the people we serve don’t have a gap in service when we have these federal hiccups,” said Laurie Francis, executive director of Partnership Health Center.
“The federal dollars for us comprise one-sixth of our funding, so we’re constantly sharing stories of how the work we do in Missoula and Mineral counties affects the health and well being of the folks we serve, so both sides of the aisle are able to support this funding.”
While Congress provided a two-month extension earlier this year, that funding expires on Nov. 21. Health centers across the country are looking for five-year funding with increases over time to allow for growth in both health care and workforce programs.
Francis said reliable funding would ensure health centers can plan for the future, secure bank loans, recruit staff and expand patient services. A five-year plan would eliminate the uncertainty caused by frequent funding renewals and delays in Washington.
“This funding has had bipartisan support since the 1960s, but it tends to be a political football when there are other issues at stake,” Francis said. “But I think both our senators and congressman are very supportive of the funding. It’s just a question of how we get it through Congress when there are other challenges on the radar.”
Partnership employs 220 people and serves as a substantial local employer. The services it provided to its 16,000 patients also held down state Medicaid costs by $1 million.
Tester said he remains optimistic that the funding will come through, “but it’s not done until it’s done.”
“Everyone in the state, whether it’s Havre, Missoula, Hardin or Libby, they’re all at risk, Tester said. “We’re going to keep banging the doors to make sure any appropriations bill includes the funding for community health centers, because lives literally depend on it.”
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