Community health center officials woke up celebrating Friday after a brief federal government shutdown ended with a bill that includes funding for CHCs through the end of fiscal year 2019.
Mimi Garcia, director of policy and external communications for the Texas Association of Community Health Centers, said restoring the funding is a victory, as the program provides for about 70 percent of federal CHC funding. But CHCs are still hopeful to secure the other 30 percent of federal discretionary funds for CHCs still on hold.
The bill passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump on Friday morning provides $3.8 billion for community health centers for fiscal year 2018 and $4 billion for FY 2019 through the Community Health Center Fund, she said.
It’s more than the amount the fund provided for CHCs before, she said, but they’re also already five months into FY 2018.
“Community health centers are breathing a sigh of relief on this,” Garcia said. “But we don’t have a lot of time to sort of enjoy it. This process took much longer than we had anticipated. In reality, it is two years of funding but that first year started five months ago.”
Community health centers are private, nonprofit organizations that directly or indirectly (through contracts and cooperative agreements) provide primary health services and related services to residents of a defined geographic area that is medically underserved, according to Johns Hopkins.
Seventy percent of federal statutory funding set aside for community health centers is drawn from the Community Health Center Fund, which was created in 2010 and was replenished for two years in 2015 at $3.6 billion per year through the Affordable Care Act, she said. Community health center officials have been scrambling to make the most of available funds since Sept. 1 when the Community Health Care Center Fund expired, throwing the access to care into jeopardy, particularly for the nation’s low-income and uninsured patients.
Maria Ochoa was one of numerous patients sitting in the waiting room of South Plains Rural Health Services, Inc. in Levelland last week as she watched the center’s employees and advocates make a public plea during a news conference for Congress to replenish funding for community health centers.
There are other clinics in Levelland, but Ochoa started going to SPRHS when she lost her insurance several years ago, she said.
SPRHS provides more than just medical services for its estimated 10,250 patients, like many of the nation’s more than 1,300 community health centers that have more than 3,000 health care sites.
Jose Camacho, executive director/general counsel for the Texas Association of Community Health Centers, said there are four community health center organizations in the Lubbock region, including two in Lubbock, one in Plainview with locations in Amarillo, and one in Levelland, which has a location in Lamesa.
Beatriz Flores-Garza, a family nurse practitioner with SPRHS, said patients can get optometry, dental and pharmaceutical services — at SPRHS locations in Levelland and Lamesa — as well as medical services.
The services are provided at discounted prices, she said.
“We charge on a sliding scale fee for those that have less income,” Flores-Garza said.
The sliding scale is between $5 and $25, she said.
SPRHS patients are also able to access prescriptions at a cheaper price, said Garth Thomas, a pharmacist with SPRHS, and Genoveva Murillo, a certified pharmacy technician with the center.
The pharmacy doesn’t offer as large of an inventory as other pharmacies, but it provides the basics necessary to manage chronic diseases at a more affordable price, Murillo said.
As an example, Thomas said, prescriptions like inhalers, which usually require between a $45 and $50 co-pay, generally cost SPRHS patients around $4. The cash price of Levemir, a brand of insulin, generally runs about $234, but the SPRHS pharmacy can provide it for $10.
Without those discounts and services, Flores-Garza said, the access to care would be in jeopardy for the low-income and uninsured populations.
And lack of federal funding puts even more strain on the community health centers.
Dr. Judith “Judy” Madura, CEO of South Plains Rural Health Services, Inc., said the next hurdle is to get Congress to maintain the discretionary funds that make up the other 30 percent of federal funding provided to community health centers.
“This is what the government provides the health centers in exchange for their agreement to see everybody regardless of their ability to pay,” Madura said.
Community health center officials said they’re satisfied with the funding extension for now but they’d like to see a more long-term fix.
“Right now we’ll take the two years and work through advocacy in the next go around and get it extended,” Madura said.