Lolita Lopez was forced to close one branch of the Delaware-based Westside Family Healthcare network she runs, and now she’s worried she’ll have to shut more unless Congress gets its act together.
Westside is among the roughly 1,400 community health centers in the U.S. that serve about 25 million people a year under a federal program that provides crucial medical care for poor people. The centers receive $5.1 billion in federal funding each year, but most of that money dried up on Sept. 30 and a highly polarized Congress appears to be in no rush to approve a long-term extension. A temporary fix ends in March.
The lack of permanent funding has affected the way centers handle critical issues, such as treating the opioid epidemic, and how they recruit and retain staff.
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“We’re on day-to-day mode trying to keep our heads above water, let alone do anything strategically or innovative,” said Lopez, the chief executive officer of Westside, which handles more than 100,000 patient visits each year.
The fear at federally qualified health centers echoes the concern of state officials who faced similar cuts in the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which fell victim to partisan gamesmanship on Capitol Hill before a recent extension. While there’s been talk of extending the community health program in the next government funding bill, the centers are preparing for the worst.
Despite the uncertainty, facilities like the Joseph P. Addabbo Family Health Center in New York continue to provide medical services. By 9 a.m. on Wednesday, the waiting room at the main branch in the Far Rockaway section of Queens was bustling with visitors there to access everything from dental care to an on-site pharmacy.
“It alleviates the stress of traveling far to look for health support,” said Agatha Obasa, 37. “It’s very important.”
Of the $5.1 billion in funding, 70% comes from a community health center fund that was established under the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Community health centers have been able to preserve their current services under the short-term funding.
“We have lost some providers who say, ‘You know what? I love this community, I love working with Addabbo, but every day we read the paper Congress is silent on this 70 percent,” said CEO Marjorie Hill. “I am very worried that Congress will do nothing, that the president will do nothing, and that we will be faced with making — I don’t want to overstate — but catastrophic decisions.”