Republicans recently failed again to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But if Congress doesn’t act by tomorrow, Contra Costa County health clinics that serve thousands of low-income patients could still lose millions of dollars in federal funding.
In Richmond and surrounding communities, many low-income, Medi-Cal and uninsured patients rely heavily on the facilities that the Community Health Center Fund has supported since its initiation in 2010. But that source of support is set to expire tomorrow, September 30, unless Congress votes to extend it.
According to a statement from the Richmond-based advocacy group the Community Clinic Consortium, if the funding bill doesn’t pass, clinics in Contra Costa County alone would lose more than $11 million, affecting over 12,000 patients.
The lost funding would impact four Richmond clinics, Laura Sheckler with the Community Clinic Consortium said: Three LifeLong Medical Centers (Brookside, Richmond, and Jenkins) and the North Richmond Center for Health would lose 70 percent of their federal grant funding unless Congress acts.
“LifeLong alone would stand to lose almost $6 million in federal grant funding on October 1,” Sheckler said, adding that “$6 million to a community health center is a huge chunk of money.”
The fund, which began in 2011, was a component of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and provided five years of funding for community health centers to expand and improve services. When the fund’s expiration approached in 2015, Congress extended it for another two years. The deadline to re-up again is tomorrow.
This year, community health centers across the country received $5.1 billion from the fund. If Congress doesn’t vote to extend that funding past its current sunset, the funding will drop to $1.5 billion next year.
Because the fund is for federally qualified health centers that serve primarily uninsured and MediCal patients, low-income groups are the most likely to be hit hard. After the Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo closed in 2015, the Community Health Center Fund was even more crucial to providers that serve low-income patients.
“The number of patients losing access to care would be like 5,000 patients,” said Lucinda Bazile, deputy director of LifeLong Medical Clinics. “That’s a clinic. That’s a health center, basically.”
Bazile also pointed out that for the “residually uninsured” populations in Contra Costa County–the people who remained without insurance even after the ACA’s expansion of MediCal–these health centers are often the only place they can turn to for primary care.
According to a report from Contra Costa Health Services, more than a quarter of Richmond residents were uninsured as of 2011. (Because of the changes under the ACA, that number of uninsured residents is likely lower now than it was in 2011.)
According to Bazile, increased funding from the Community Health Center Fund helped LifeLong improve access in a number of ways, among them opening additional locations, remaining open for longer hours, and offering new services.
Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia pointed out that cutting funding from these providers could limit access to preventative care and result in more cost to taxpayers. “Cutting community health center funding reduces that access and results in more delayed medical care, which is more expensive and less effective,” he said.
For now, Senate Republicans have given up the effort to repeal all or parts of the ACA, and safety-net providers are hoping the GOP will take notice of the imminent deadline to extend funding for community health centers. Though the fund was initiated as part of the ACA, it has bipartisan support, according to both congressional aides and advocates.
But some fear lawmakers will drag their feet.
“There’s just so much noise happening in D.C. right now that getting [representatives] to pay attention to this and actually move forward with it is one of our challenges as advocates,” Sheckler said.
While Bazile and Sheckler heard there were opportunities to vote and pass the funding retroactively if legislators miss the deadline, they aren’t counting on Washington for anything.
“If they weren’t able to get this funded by the thirtieth, they were hoping they would be able to do it very quickly after,” Sheckler said. “But we don’t have any assurances of that at this point.”