Trying to Survive: Community Responses to Uncertainties About Federal Funding for Medicaid and Public Health Programs
“We are just trying to survive.”
So says the director of an Ohio federally qualified health center (FQHC) that, like many such clinics nationwide, struggles to meet the demand for a wide range of services, from prenatal and other preventive care to addiction treatment and oral health care.
Along with community hospitals and public health departments, FQHCs — critical providers of health services in many low-income communities — are funded through state and local taxes, federal and state government programs, and private philanthropy. But some FQHCs are experiencing shortfalls in trying to meet their clients’ needs. Threats from Congress to reduce federal Medicaid funding, scale back Medicaid expansion, and decrease funding for public health programs have further compounded the financial uncertainties.
To learn how funding shortfalls are being experienced on the ground, my colleagues and I spoke with hospital administrators, chiefs of emergency departments, directors of county public health departments, and heads of FQHCs and behavioral health clinics. We also interviewed community leaders connected to businesses, law enforcement, local media, religious organizations, and political groups in eight North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin counties.
Local Health Funding Inadequate
Nearly all of these community leaders described increasing access to health care as just one of three priorities for their communities. Improving local schools and attracting businesses with good-paying jobs are the other top concerns. As one school superintendent said, “We need to focus on all of these if we are to attract employers and people and remain a desirable place to live.”
But local health needs keep growing. The list is daunting: the decontamination of public water supplies; prenatal and infant care; immunizations; reductions in smoking and obesity; better nutrition; dental care for children and adults; and addressing mental illness, suicide risks, and substance use disorders. “We don’t have the capacity to deal with all who [need help],” says a Wisconsin county public health director. “We need to build infrastructure” — clinics and treatment centers — “and provider network capacity.”
We don't have the capacity to deal with all who [need help]. We need to build infrastructure and provider network capacity.
County public health director in Wisconsin
Health departments and community clinics report that local funding has been inadequate for some time. As state and county governments have resisted raising taxes and increasing funds for public health needs and community clinics, grants from local organizations and foundations have helped fill the breach. But private philanthropy only goes so far. “Local foundations do not want to fund long-term staff needs,” one public health director said.
Medicaid Funding Is Critical for FQHCs and Emergency Departments
Threats to Medicaid funding have community providers worried. Medicaid generally provides about half the revenues for FQHCs, enabling them to provide care to all, regardless of ability to pay. FQHC directors fear that changes to eligibility — including requirements that beneficiaries work or volunteer, as proposed under various waivers — could mean that some patients will lose coverage, along with their access to counseling and medications for mental illness or chronic conditions like diabetes. Medicaid cutbacks also could make it harder for FQHCs to find specialists willing to see their uninsured or underinsured patients.
Hospital emergency departments (EDs) also would suffer from cuts to Medicaid. “Medicaid and self-pay [patients are] now 40 percent of our revenue, compared to 20 percent before Medicaid was expanded,” one ED chief told us. While more patients are covered thanks to the expansion, ED revenue from private insurance in these communities is down over the past two years, making hospitals more dependent on public insurance. ED chiefs also say that people with mental illnesses or substance use disorders experiencing crises are already crowding EDs, in part because it’s often easier for Medicaid beneficiaries to get to the hospital than to find primary care providers willing to treat them in a timely manner. If Medicaid funding is cut or eligibility requirements are changed, such problems could become much worse.
“We used to use just 15 codes to bill for services. Now there are about 250, and I’ve had to hire more administrative staff.”
Director of a behavioral health clinic
Medicaid Changes Already Impacting Providers
Complicating matters is a 2016 rule issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that was intended to improve quality of care and oversight for the growing number of Medicaid beneficiaries enrolled in managed care. Some states are responding to the rule by requiring that FQHCs and other safety-net clinics use more complex coding to file their claims for reimbursement, adding to the administrative burden on clinics. “We used to use just 15 codes to bill for services,” the director of a behavioral health clinic said. “Now there are about 250, and I’ve had to hire more administrative staff.”
Moreover, some clinics have seen longer gaps between the time claims are submitted and reimbursement is received from the state. The resulting cash flow problems hit smaller clinics, which have narrow operating margins, particularly hard. “This [delay] is causing smaller clinics to live in their ‘line of [bank] credit’,” one clinic director said. “Does the state want to deal only with large provider agencies?”
Paralyzed by Unease About the Future
These ongoing changes to Medicaid payment, along with proposed eligibility changes and fears of funding cutbacks, are causing grave concerns among community health leaders. With needs for care growing, they are understandably focused on the present. Otherwise, as one clinic director said, “[we] would be paralyzed by unease about the future.”
In the counties we visited, local independent political groups that have sprung up in response to these and other concerns see the federal government as out of touch with local needs for better health care, better schools, and higher-paying jobs — and with communities’ inability to dig deeper into their pockets to address these needs. For the clinics and hospitals that serve Medicaid patients and their communities, stable Medicaid funding will be critical to meeting their missions.
This post draws on an ongoing project with Theda Skocpol (Government Department) and Mary Waters (Sociology Department) at Harvard University, with funding from the Commonwealth Fund and the Russell Sage Foundation.