Community health centers face funding cliff

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Without an extension due from Congress by October, health care providers serving the state’s most vulnerable populations could have to cut back on care as a result of site layoffs and closures.

One in 15 South Carolinians relied on community health centers (CHCs) in 2013, many of which are located in rural, high-poverty and high-minority areas designated as “medically underserved communities.”

Federal funding for CHCs generates nearly $93 million in economic impact, contributing to 759 total jobs in South Carolina alone, according to the National Association of Community Health Centers. Without funding, CHCs could see a 70 percent cut to operational grants.

South Carolina has 19 CHCs – including four in the Upstate – that served 325,000 patients in 2013. While President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget proposal included a three-year plan that would keep CHCs sufficiently funded, it still has to be approved by Congress, said S.C. Primary Health Care Centers Association CEO Lathran Woodard. Her organization is the unifying association for S.C. CHCs.

“It’s an acknowledgement that the funding cliff needs to be fixed,” Woodard said. CHCs provide more efficient care and ultimately save money for the state, she said. “Funding keeps our community health centers open in underserved areas, and we are also keeping the staff of those centers employed.”

South Carolina CHCs serve a disproportionate number of impoverished, minority and rural patients, both compared to the general state population and the U.S. population. Only 35 percent of the state’s population is below 200 percent of the poverty level, but a full 95 percent of CHC patients fall below that line.

Similarly, 36 percent of South Carolina’s population is non-white, but non-white patients made up 69 percent of CHC patients, according to the National Association of Community Health Centers.

Obama’s budget would provide $2.7 billion per year for three years, in addition to discretionary funding to the tune of $1.5 billion and reserve funding from the existing Health Centers Fund.

“For 50 years, America’s Health Centers have provided primary and preventive care to those communities and patients who have nowhere else to turn,” said the National Association of Community Health Centers President and CEO Tom Van Coverden about the president’s budget proposal. “As Congress begins to examine fiscal and policy priorities for the year ahead, we look forward to working with leaders in both parties not only to address this looming threat to primary care access, but to invest wisely in health centers so that they may continue to meet the ever-growing demand for care in communities across America.”

In Greenville, New Horizon Family Health Services served 20,794 patients in 2012, even before the CHC built and opened a $16 million 64,000-square-foot downtown facility to operate in addition to its for existing locations. The health center is in the process of expanding again with a location across from Greenville Health System off of Faris Road.

More than 50 percent of New Horizon’s 2012 patients were uninsured, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration.

“We’ve had this for years, for four presidents back,” said Woodard. “There’s really bipartisan support for health centers… it still has to be resolved.”

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