Nation & World

Is the check in the mail for community health centers?

Languishing for months, funding could emerge after stopgap deal

(file photo) Lauri Kell (from left), phlebotomist/medical assistant, draws blood from Mary Lawshea of Cedar Rapids, who turned her head as she dislikes needles, during her appointment at Eastern Iowa Health Center in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Dec. 15, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
(file photo) Lauri Kell (from left), phlebotomist/medical assistant, draws blood from Mary Lawshea of Cedar Rapids, who turned her head as she dislikes needles, during her appointment at Eastern Iowa Health Center in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Dec. 15, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

WASHINGTON — After treading water for months, the community health centers that serve 27 million low-income Americans just might ride the next wave of congressional funding.

The latest short-term government spending bill, approved Tuesday in the U.S. House, adds two years of funding for the health centers that serve one out of every 12 Americans — or about 184,500 people in Iowa — including children and military veterans.

The bill, which would fund most of the government through March 23, is likely dead on arrival in the Senate, as Democrats and some Republicans object to other aspects including military and domestic spending.

But the newest plan shows congressional leaders are serious about securing funding for the centers in whatever measure they pass to keep the government open past Thursday.

Indeed, Iowa GOP Sen. Joni Ernst joined a bipartisan group of senators Tuesday in calling on the chamber’s leaders to reauthorize funding for the centers that actually expired in September.

“Community health centers serve a vital function, providing affordable health care to our nation’s most vulnerable citizens,” wrote the senators. “They provide quality medical, dental, vision and behavioral health care to more than 27 million patients, including 330,000 of our nation’s veterans and 8 million children, at over 10,000 sites nationwide.

Iowa has 14 federally funded community health centers, some operating satellite clinics also, and 45 percent of their patients rely on Medicaid. The Eastern Iowa Health Center in Cedar Rapids gets part of its budget from the Congress-authorized fund.

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Movement toward approving the funding again is good news for health care advocates, who have been deeply discouraged over the past several months as Congress neglected to reauthorize funding for their key programs.

“We’re about to explode over here, holding our breath to see what the next (spending bill) has for us,” Dan Hawkins, senior vice president for the National Association of Community Health Centers, wrote in an email.

If community health center funding stays in a spending bill, it still will have been more than 125 days since federal dollars have technically expired for the centers — an unprecedented situation that has seriously threatened their stability.

About 2,800 health centers around the country would be forced to shutter without the funding, which comprises about 70 percent of their budgets, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

There’s no clear reason lawmakers haven’t authorized the money — besides the fact the centers originally were tied to disputes over funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which finally got its cash last month. Rank-and-file lawmakers have been yelling at leadership to resolve the situation.

Besides the bipartisan Senate letter, more than 100 GOP members sent a similar letter last Friday to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., saying community health center funding should be included in “the next moving piece of legislation to be signed into law.”

Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, and Michaela Ramm of The Gazette contributed.

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