Congress can’t leave community health centers and patients behind

Community Health Centers are the backbone of access to health care for low-income and vulnerable communities.

  • Monday, August 19, 2019 12:24pm
  • Opinion
Congressman Adam Smith

Congressman Adam Smith

By Congressman Adam Smith

The debate over the future of health care in the United States has been at the forefront of news cycles and presidential candidate platforms. While this important debate continues, we cannot forget a critical step that Congress must take before Sept. 30 to help ensure access to health care for our communities: reauthorizing the Community Health Center Fund (CHCF).

Community Health Centers (CHCs) are the backbone of access to health care for low-income and vulnerable communities. On Sept. 30, funding for the CHCF will expire; it is imperative that Congress pass a five-year reauthorization for the CHCF.

CHCs provide quality primary, dental and behavioral and mental health care to members of our most underserved communities. Over 28 million people throughout the country depend on CHCs for health care, including 8 million children, over 1 million homeless people, and hundreds of thousands of veterans. This also includes several hundred thousand people here in Washington’s 9th District, which includes Federal Way. A staggering 92% of CHC patients live near or below the poverty line. CHCs help us reach the people who have been left behind in our health care system for far too long — low-income communities, communities of color, immigrants, and American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Beyond just providing critical health care for millions of people, CHCs are also pioneering innovative ways to address the complex barriers to improving the health and quality of life of the patients they treat. CHCs work outside their health center walls to address the external factors that impact health such as food access and nutrition, housing and homelessness, and lack of transportation. Their work is essential to alleviating America’s opioid crisis and helping end the HIV epidemic.

CHCs go into our communities to prevent health issues before they start, work on the frontlines of the homelessness crisis, and utilize mobile and school-based health centers to reach people where they live, work, play and learn. In addition, CHCs help train tomorrow’s primary care work force, which we desperately need to build-up regardless of how our health system changes in the future.

Less than two years ago in 2017, Congress let funding for the CHCF expire for several months before finally passing a two-year reauthorization. This created significant uncertainty, calling into question whether there would be funding for health professionals who dedicate their lives to serving the community and whether health care services that patients relied on were going to be cut. Congress cannot let that mistake happen again. With another expiration coming at the end of September, we must pass a five-year funding reauthorization. This would provide CHCs the certainty they need to expand their services, invest in innovative models of care, and continue to serve more patients.

If we are serious about addressing health disparities and inequities in care and if we are committed to ensuring that your income, race or where you live are not determining factors in your ability to receive quality care, then sustained investments in CHCs is vital.

The good news is that funding for Community Health Centers enjoys bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Over the summer, legislation moved through committees in both the House and Senate to provide long-term funding reauthorization for the Community Health Center Fund. Now we must work before the Sept. 30 deadline to send legislation to the president’s desk.

Congressman Adam Smith represents Washington’s 9th District, which includes Federal Way.

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