By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, signed onto a bipartisan letter to Senate leadership Monday calling for the re-authorization of a fund crucial for community health centers across the country.
Authorization for the Community Health Center Fund — which supports centers that provide health services to millions of the nation’s most medically underserved — ran out on Sept. 30, 2017, the same time funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program expired.
Jones joined a bipartisan group of 66 other senators in sending the letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. In the letter, the senators expressed concern that the loss of community health centers could mean a serious blow to primary and preventative care for families.
While CHIP received a long-term reauthorization in January after months of turmoil, Congress has yet to reauthorize the Community Health Center Fund, putting health centers at risk of losing 70 percent of their funding. A $550 million repreive for the program passed as part of a short-term funding measure in December, but money could begin to run out again within the next month.
Of more than 10,000 sites operating today, as many as 2,800 could face closure if funding isn’t renewed, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates.
“Congress needs to work together and immediately extend funding for our community health centers,” Jones said. “The sixteen centers in our state often serve as the only place for 350,000 Alabamians to access critical health care.”
The closure of those facilities could leave 9 million people without access to regular health care services, according to the same study and the senators’ letter. As many as 50,000-160,000 jobs could also be lost as sites close and state economies reel from $15 billion in staff layoffs and cutbacks.
“Failing to act immediately would threaten the livelihood of some of our most at-risk residents like seniors, veterans, and children,” Jones said. “I’m proud to take this step to ensure that leadership does right by the people of Alabama, and Congress finally gives our health care providers the resources they need to continue serving our communities.”
Many community health centers — much like state CHIP programs a few months ago — are in flux as they await any action on funding as part of a long-term spending deal. Though CHIP has escaped the fight, for now, community health centers are still in the crossfire as Congress struggles to reach a long-term deal.
Most patients who seek care at some 10,000 community health center sites across the country, which often operate as small businesses, are low-income individuals including 330,000 veterans, 8 million children and millions of others.
The program is more than 50 years old and like CHIP has enjoyed wide bipartisan support. Fights of funding bills this year have not only put CHIP and community health centers in jeopardy, it also closed down the federal government last month and could force a closure again later this week.
A funding bill of some sort, likely a short-term agreement, must pass both chambers by Feb. 8 to avert another shutdown. A deal circulating now could keep the government open through most of March if passed.