Missed funding deadline in D.C. leaves state health centers on edge

  • Sheila LaGrenade of Northampton, formerly of Deerfield, joined people protesting the new health care bill on the Greenfield Town Common on Thursday at noon. March 23, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

State House News Service
Monday, October 02, 2017

BOSTON — Massachusetts officials are sounding the alarm over a possible loss of federal money for certain health care programs, and advocates said its impact has already hit community health centers.

While public attention has been focused on the fate of the Affordable Care Act, Congress last week quietly missed a funding reauthorization deadline leaving $3.6 billion hanging in the balance across the country, including $196 million for community health centers in Massachusetts.

“If in fact it is not ever reauthorized, it is catastrophic,” Eliza Lake, CEO of Hilltown Community Health Center in Worthington, told the Health Policy Commission Monday at a hearing exploring trends in state health care spending. “It is, for my health center, about one-sixth of our budget, maybe a little more, and so we rely upon that as part of our federal mandate to serve everyone who comes in our doors.”

Health center officials locally spent last week pressing Congress to act by the Saturday, Sept. 30 deadline. No action was taken, but the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by Rep. Greg Walden (R-Oregon), announced plans to consider a bill this week that would extend federal funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), community health centers, diabetes programs, the National Health Service Corps, and Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education.

“CHIP, now in its 20th year, has always been bipartisan and we hope this extension will be no different,” Walden said. “These public health programs play a critical role in communities across the country. It’s imperative we finish our work quickly so these vital services continue to be available for those who rely on them.”

Health centers in Massachusetts and across the country are already feeling impacts from the uncertainty around future funding, according to the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, which cited reports of community health centers instituting hiring freezes, struggling to recruit or retain providers, and beig unable to secure loans to expand capacity.

“Even the uncertainty of a fix is creating business disruptions for Massachusetts health centers, including hiring freezes and unplanned delays in expansion projects to add needed services and new sites,” James Hunt, the league’s president and CEO, said in a statement last week. “In one case, a health center has delayed plans to hire more care management staff, effectively preventing its Accountable Care Organization from fully implementing its goals to improve care outcomes and lower costs.”

Lake, whose health center has locations in Worthington and Huntington, said there is a history of bipartisan support for community health centers. She said she hopes Congress “will rally through the distractions at the moment” to reauthorize the funds.

Hilltown’s federal grant runs through May, Lake said, leaving the health center “sort of holding tight in this storm of uncertainty that surrounds all of us right now.”

According to the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, federal funds represent an average 11 percent of a health center’s budget and allow them to expand capacity through new personnel, services and physical space.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Gov. Charlie Baker said community health centers and the Children’s Health Insurance Program are programs that people “really depend on.”

“The CHIP program, which has been really important to Massachusetts - and we were one of the first states to adopt it and chase it hard — has not been reauthorized. ...That worries me,” Baker said after speaking at the health costs hearing. “And they also did not reauthorize the community health center program. So while a lack of action on some of the issues around ACA reform may have been good news, there’s a whole bunch of other things where a lack of action creates real issues for everybody and in a very immediate term.”