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Community Health Centers Funding Set to Run Out in March without Congressional Reauthorization

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There are 30 of community health centers in West Virginia serving more than 400,000 people. Congress didn’t include funding in its latest continuing budget resolution, which means federal funding for those centers is about to run out. If that happens, people like Julie Pratt may not have access to the care they need.

Pratt is self-employed. She got health insurance through her husband’s  job when he was working. Then he retired and she was able to buy insurance through the Affordable Care Act Marketplaces.

“And then the next year, the premiums went from $700 to $1,000 a month," she said. "And that was just - my business does pretty well, but not that well to be able to pay $1,000 a month for my health insurance premium and then a very high deductible. That plan now for me would be over $1,200 a month for this year.”

But she was also lucky in a way. Pratt started going to Family Care Health Centers as an insured patient. Family Care is a community health center. So when she lost her insurance, Family Care kept her on as an uninsured patient on a sliding-fee scale.

“This is a problem that affects a lot of people paying for health care," Pratt said. "And even if you make a fairly decent living, the cost of premiums is just skyrocketing. And so when you have these programs that help people make ends meet with their health care costs and then you just sort of leave it hanging, it causes a lot of stress for people.”

Community health centers in West Virginia get on average about 10-20 percent of their funding from the federal government, according to the West Virginia Primary Care Association.  In return, they are required to take any patient who walks through the door - Medicaid, private insurance or uninsured as the case may be.

“Health Centers are the safety net of health care in West Virginia,” said Sherri Ferrell, Chief Operating and Financial Officer for the West Virginia Primary Care Association.

And with that funding in limbo, health centers have to consider whether they will reduce services or stop expansion plans.

“Is it going to stay at current levels, are we going to get it all, is it going to get reduced things like that. So it puts us in a really, really bad place in terms of uncertainty,” said Derek Snyder, CEO of Coplin Health Systems. He said the uncertainty makes it really difficult to recruit and retain staff, expand programs and open new facilities.

Louise Reese is CEO of the West Virginia Primary Care Association. She said there is bipartisan support in Congress for community health centers and all five of West Virginia's representatives are fully on board with reauthorizing funding for them, but that the funding is stuck behind other controversial pieces of legislation such as immigration. At this point, she said, federal funding for health centers will run out on March 31.

“It will have a domino effect," Reese said. "The health centers will take a deep breath, they are going to hunker down, they are going to cut any costs that they can that are not required. It could be that certain programs or services are cut. Patients may not have access to care. So if they don’t have access to care then they may going to start going to the emergency room. So then we have lack of primary care, an increase of going to the ER and then the hospitals are impacted by the shift so it plays out in multiple parts of the delivery system.”

Congress is supposed to reach a long-term budget deal by February 8, when the current continuing resolution expires.


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