COLUMN: Deadline Demands Action for Community Health Centers

September 18, 2017
Weekly Column and Op-Ed

When Barbara Johnston realized she was going blind, it changed everything. She could not read the numbers on her prescription, nor could she tell which medications needed refilling, including her blood pressure medication. She also realized her vision problems, the result of macular degeneration, were getting worse. I was thankful to hear from Yakima Neighborhood Health Services how they were able to connect her with a care coordinator where she received help for her vision problems and assistance with managing her blood pressure to prevent a stroke.   

Decisions made by lawmakers in the Congress have a real impact on the lives of people like Barbara Johnston. As Congress continues to debate ways to move our system to one that is focused on patient needs, with greater access, more choices, higher quality, and lower costs, there is one solution virtually all of us agree on: Community Health Centers like Yakima Neighborhood Health Services or Tri-Cities Community Health, among others. With critical funding for these centers set to expire at the end of this month, we need to prioritize action to maintain and build on these health care success stories.

Begun more than fifty years ago, health centers now represent the nation’s largest and most successful primary care network. Health centers offer comprehensive and high-quality care to everyone who walks through their doors – over 27 million people nationally. That is one in twelve Americans.

In Central Washington, we have eight Community Health Centers, for a total of 59 sites serving 287,630 patients, with a federal investment of more than $37 million.

I have been to many of these locations and seen firsthand what a difference these organizations make in the lives of our neighbors and in the health of our community. Congress must act quickly to ensure our CHCs are able to provide care.

We must prioritize the extension of funding for Community Health Centers, or centers will face a 70% reduction in federal support. According to the federal government’s own estimates, that level of reduction would lead to closure of some 2,800 CHC locations, loss of more than 50,000 jobs, and most importantly, a loss of access to care for some 9 million patients.

Two years ago, I joined my colleagues in Congress to vote overwhelmingly to extend funding for CHCs as part of the Medicare Access and Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) Reauthorization Act. Now we must act again.

I am proud to cosponsor the Community Health Investment, Modernization and Excellence (CHIME) Act of 2017. This bipartisan solution extends the Community Health Centers Fund for five years, allowing these centers to stay open and continue to provide critical care. As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I have also supported robust funding for Health Centers Program funding throughout the budget progress.

I support a long-term extension, for at least five years, so that our CHCs can have the predictability and stability they need to recruit providers, purchase equipment, and plan strategically for how to meet the current needs.