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Health Centers Portrayed as Cost Savers as Cuts Loom

By Melanie Zanona, CQ Roll Call

March 17, 2015 -- Advocates for community health centers facing a drop-off in federal payments later this year are highlighting the estimated $24 billion in medical spending the centers save annually.

A report released last week  by the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) also estimates the centers create jobs and $26.5 billion in "needed economic activity to economically distressed communities." The facilities provide preventive and primary care services to underserved communities.

Mandatory funding authorized by the 2010 health care law—which makes up almost 70 percent of the centers' overall funding—will run out on Sept. 30 unless Congress intervenes. The law set aside $11 billion over five years for a health center fund.

Supporters acknowledged that federal funding cuts could spell doom for the centers, which have existed since the 1960s and have long enjoyed bipartisan support.

"Losses in federal funding would dramatically unravel not only recent progress, but 50 years of achievement, resulting in a loss of care for millions of patients and layoffs of clinicians and other key personnel at a time when demand for primary care is increasing," said Dan Hawkins, senior vice president of public policy and research at the NACHC, speaking at a recent press conference. "There is too much at stake to turn back now."

Hawkins estimates that 7.4 million people would no longer be able to access care at a local health center within the first year, while nearly 57,000 clinicians and staff would be laid off, if federal funding dries up.

Community health centers are projected to serve 28 million patients this year in areas that typically lack access to large hospitals or doctors' offices, according to the report. The facilities are often credited with generating health care savings by improving patient outcomes and enhancing poor and uninsured individuals' access to care.

President Barack Obama requested $4.2 billion, including $2.7 billion in new mandatory resources, for health centers in his fiscal 2016 budget request, while lawmakers from both parties have expressed support for extending funding for the centers. The question is how to come up with the money.

The outcome could hinge on whether lawmakers choose to address the other health funding that expires at the same time—a predicament some are calling the "primary care cliff." The National Health Service Corps, which offers scholarships and school loan assistance, and Teaching Health Centers, which provides training for health professionals, are funded entirely through mandatory spending that would expire Sept. 30.

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