Richmond health centers facing big cuts from Congress

Laura Echavarria, a medical assistant at LifeLong Medical Care’s Brookside Richmond clinic, cleans an exam room on Oct. 10. LifeLong’s three medical clinics are among the safety-net providers that are preparing for a major loss of federal funding if Congress does not act.

Laura Echavarria, a medical assistant at LifeLong Medical Care’s Brookside Richmond clinic, cleans an exam room on Oct. 10. LifeLong’s three medical clinics are among the safety-net providers that are preparing for a major loss of federal funding if Congress does not act.

Community health centers in Richmond and throughout the country are planning for the possibility that, by January, they may lose 70 percent of their federal grant funding.

On September 30, the Community Health Center Fund expired. And Congress still has yet to address the impact of losing some $3.6 billion in funding nationwide, which has already begun to affect safety-net providers.

“Most health centers are sort of bunkering down,” said Andie Patterson, director of government affairs for the California Primary Care Association, a state advocacy group. “Some health centers are trying to make crazy-hard decisions at this point, and others are just thinking about which staff they’ll have to lay off or will they scale back services.”

She added that, in Richmond, these grants provide important services, including treatment and prevention, casework management, translation, and transportation assistance.

John Martinez, 61, is a LifeLong patient in Oakland and among those who might be affected if funding isn’t re-upped. LifeLong runs three of the four Richmond clinics that would be hit by cuts. Martinez said that LifeLong helped him deal with depression and get preventative care after he lost his job.

He said that he’s been “blown away” by the access to care at the clinics, which he said has been better any care he’s received before. “I don’t know where else I would get the medicine,” he said.

Martinez is on Medi-Cal, but uninsured patients also are especially reliant on these centers. In Contra Costa County, census data estimates there were at least 50,000 uninsured individuals as of 2016. According to Lucinda Bazile, deputy director of LifeLong Medical Care, they could see 5,000 patients lose access to care if the federal grants expire

In communities like Richmond, where there is a large population that needs these clinics and relatively few providers to serve them, the fight for funding is even more urgent.

According to a survey from the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC), more than a quarter of community health centers already reported difficulty recruiting new providers. Patterson said this is especially troubling given the existing shortage of primary care options.

“Just because you have coverage — as we all have learned —doesn’t mean you have access to a primary care provider,” she said. “You want that access, and that’s where the health center funding comes in.”

“The reality is that health centers have begun tapping into their spending down reserves,” Amy Simmons Farber at the NACHC added. “Each health center is probably making their own plan about how they’re going to cut back costs.”

As Richmond’s four community health centers and others across the nation prepare for the worst, advocates continue fighting to extend the grant money.

According to Patterson, the true financial impact won’t be felt until the grants are scheduled for renewal in January, and the Health Resources and Services Administration said there may be money until February or March at the latest.

As Republicans and Democrats butt heads over the details of the funding bills, advocates are beginning to experience advocacy fatigue. The current bills only include two years of funding, which is better than nothing, Patterson said.

Though another push to extend this funding isn’t ideal for advocates, they anticipate the next several years will not be devoid of battles against the Trump administration.

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