There is yet another health care funding crisis before Congress.
After months of concern from advocates and families, lawmakers approved long-term funding two weeks ago for the Children’s Health Insurance Program. They didn’t do the same, however, for the country’s federally qualified health centers (FQHCs), which provide health care to low-income people. The program is set to lose funding in March.
FQHC is a designation that allows clinics to draw money from the federal government. Like the Children’s Health Insurance Program, funding for FQHCs expired in September. Since then, Congress has been paying for the program month to month, but all those stop-gap funds are expiring.
“Seventy percent of our health center funding would be at risk. That’s $4.2 million,” says Jaeson Fournier, CEO of CommUnityCare Health Centers, a chain of FQHCs in Austin.
Fournier says other health centers have already started cutting back services, but CommUnityCare hasn’t yet. Its future depends on whether Congress commits to long-term funding in time.
“If we don’t have that funding as of April 1, we'll have to make very difficult decisions about how we might be able to go ahead and absorb that type of funding loss,” he says. “But the reality is, unless we are able to find an alternative source of funding, our services would be compromised.”
Jose E. Camacho, executive director of the Texas Association of Community Health Centers, says this is what FQHCs are facing right now. The funding deadline is creating a lot of instability, he says, so most centers are holding off on long-term plans.
“They are delaying plans on implementing grants,” he says, “delaying expansion of services, even delaying new buildings.”
Delayed construction is something that is felt particularly in parts of Texas that are rebuilding from Hurricane Harvey, Camacho says.
Women’s health services could also take a hit. In 2016, he says, more than 45,000 women in Texas got prenatal care from these health centers.
“Those women are going to be delivering somewhere,” Camacho says. “They have to get their prenatal care somewhere. We don’t know of another system that can replicate what health centers are doing.”
Uninsured people will be the hardest hit if funding expires, Fournier says. CommUnityCare provides primary health care to people regardless of whether they can pay. Last year the health centers served more than 90,000.
“About 54 percent are uninsured,” he says, “so absolutely no health insurance whatsoever.”
Fournier says if that population loses access to primary care, there will be serious consequences.
“In the erosion – potentially – of health centers, we are going to end up with folks having no alternative but for people to go to emergency rooms or urgent care centers,” he says.
In Texas, that’s already a big issue, given that the state has the highest number of people without health insurance in the country.