Travis County community health centers urge Congress to extend funding

Travis County health care leaders on Wednesday called on Congress to extend funding for community health centers, hours before bipartisan Senate leaders unveiled a plan that would do just that.

The plan comes as Congress scrambles to pass a spending bill by Thursday to prevent the second government shutdown this year. The Senate deal includes two years of funding for the Community Health Center Fund.

“I can unequivocally say that this is probably the most challenging funding period that we’ve ever faced as health centers,” said Jaeson Fournier, CEO of CommUnityCare Health Centers, at a press conference Wednesday. “Unfortunately, I think community health centers are just subject to the goings on currently within Congress.”

CommUnityCare provides medical and dental services to underserved communities, regardless of insurance status or ability to pay, at 19 sites throughout Travis County. Last year, CommUnityCare, which also receives funding from Central Health, Travis County’s health care district, attended to 93,000 patients.

Fournier said about $4.2 million of the organization’s funding from the federal program is at risk.

“While community health centers effectively address health care access and reduce health disparities … our ability to do so is directly tied to funding that’s available to us,” Fournier said.

Health centers received a temporary extension in December, but that funding will run out at the end of March if Congress doesn’t renew funding for the Community Health Center Fund, officials said. More than 70 percent of federal grant funding for health centers comes from the program.

“If we don’t secure funding by April 1, CommUnityCare will have to make very difficult decisions — balancing funding cuts with providing patient care,” Fournier said.

Barbara Shirley, a patient as well as a member of the CommUnityCare board of directors, said she was laid off in 2008 and lost her health insurance. That same year, she had a heart attack.

“I was challenged to find the health care I needed and follow-up (care),” Shirley said. “I discovered CommUnityCare. They not only treated my heart condition but other pre-existing conditions as well, such as diabetes, asthma and high cholesterol.”

Without the federal funding, community health centers in Texas would be out about $166 million, potentially causing nearly 200,000 patients to lose health care, according to the Texas Association of Community Health Centers.

“We … hope strongly that our congressional members will make the right decision in support of lower resourced individuals and medically vulnerable populations across the country,” Fournier said.

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