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Higher Funding for Community Health Centers Could Reduce Costs, Group Says

MARCH 23, 2006 -- Higher funding for community health centers could help reduce the nation's health care costs by as much as $18 billion annually, according to a study released Thursday.

The National Association of Community Health Centers, which released the report at a news conference, said treating patients at their facilities rather than hospital emergency rooms would improve medical care while reducing costs.

The report comes as Congress begins the annual budget process (S Con Res 83), which will impact both the program's funding levels and related programs such as Medicaid. Congress will also be asked to reauthorize the health center program this year.

The Bush administration has made funding increases for community health centers a priority since 2000. The president's 2007 budget proposal, released Feb. 6, requested a $181 million increase in program levels for community health centers. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates the boost would fund 300 new or expanded health centers.

Yet cuts elsewhere will hurt the work that community health centers do, members of the association said Thursday.

Bush's budget request for the Health Resources and Services Administration, which runs the community health centers, is $25 million, or 4 percent less, than last year. HRSA for instance would see funding for health professions programs drop from $295 million to $159 million. The programs aim to direct health care professionals to medically underserved communities. Members of the health group said such cuts would exacerbate the already-difficult job of recruiting staff to community health centers, particularly in rural areas.

"Nobody wants to come to the rural areas," said Sherry L. Hill, chief executive of the Community Health Centers of South Central Texas.

The health center group criticized other proposed cuts, including a $133 million cut to funding for rural health care programs, which Dan Hawkings, the association's vice president for federal state and public affairs, called "devastating." Half of the 15 million people served by community health centers live in rural areas, he said.

The group's report found that community health centers served 4 million new patients over the last five years. During that same period, however, 800 communities applied for funding to open centers but did not receive it.

"Congress can and must increase funding levels to help reach more communities in need," Hawkings said.

The group argues that more community health centers would help solve burgeoning health care problems in the U.S.

Their report says that about one-third of patients who visit an emergency room each year was not experiencing an emergency or could have been treated by a primary care provider. A community health center can treat one patient for an entire year on what one trip to the emergency room costs, the group says.

The group also stressed that significant numbers of Americans still go without health care of any kind—a gap they could help fill with more funding. The group's report cited statistics. For instance, 40 million U.S. children do not receive preventive medical and dental care.

FTCA, Medicaid Citizenship Test Concerns
The health center group touched other legislative issues affecting community health centers' efforts to improve medical access.

They urged Congress to pass several bills that would extend federal liability protection to health center workers beyond the current coverage.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, employees of centers in other states learned their current liability protection under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) stopped once they crossed state lines. A bill sponsored by Rep. Joe Schwarz, R-Mich., (HR 3962) would provide liability protections for employees and contractors of community health centers who provide health services in emergency areas.

Another bill (HR 1313) would extend FTCA protections to health care providers who volunteer at community health centers. Supporters say the legislation is particularly needed to bring specialist care to the centers.

The group also criticized a citizenship requirement added to Medicaid in the fiscal 2006 budget reconciliation package (PL 109-171). Under the change, states are prohibited from receiving federal Medicaid reimbursement for an individual who has not provided documentation proving their citizenship or nationality.

Hawkings said the measure threatens to dramatically increase the number of uninsured Americans, further straining the U.S. health care system, including community health centers.

"They're going to end up on our doorsteps," he said.

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