Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., announced a bill Thursday to expand funding for community health centers, in a move to counteract a coming loss of federal funding for these centers if Congress doesn't act by Sept. 30.
That date represents the end of the federal fiscal year, and no money has yet been allocated for the coming fiscal year for federally qualified health centers (FQHCs), said Daniel McLean, spokesman for Sanders' office.
Sanders, along with House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., announced the Community Health Center and Primary Care Workforce Expansion Act of 2019 Thursday morning in a press conference, which was live-streamed.
The bill expands and extends funding for community health centers and provides $4.6 billion for capital projects, to allow health centers to expand services and modernize their facilities.
For fiscal 2019, the bill would allocate $5.63 billion in funding for federally qualified health centers; that funding would increase to $6.19 billion for fiscal 2020, with increases every year, up to $9.06 billion for fiscal 2024.
In Vermont, 176,858 patients were served by community health centers in 2017, according to state data from the National Association of Community Health Centers. This represents a 57 percent increase in patients since 2010.
In Bennington County, there is one FQHC, the Battenkill Valley Health Center in Arlington, according to Sanders' website. That facility operates as a one-stop comprehensive health center, and offers a sliding fee program for eligible county residents who are uninsured, underinsured or have high-deductible health insurance plans, according to its website.
Senators Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., are co-sponsors of the legislation in the Senate, and 57 members in the House are cosponsoring the legislation.
The bill also provides increased funding for the National Health Service Corps, which provides scholarships and loan repayment for clinicians working in underserved communities, often health centers, according to a press release from Sanders' office.
At the press conference, Sanders described the multitude of services community health centers provide — primary care, dental care, mental health services and low-cost prescription drugs.
"Community health centers today — and I think a lot of people don't know this — now provide high-quality primary care to 28 million Americans in 11,000 communities across the country, regardless of their ability to pay," Sanders said.
They also provide care to 13 million people in rural areas, most of whom have nowhere else to go, he said.
Sanders said that community health centers not only provide important services, but also save taxpayers billions of dollars.
"If people do not have a community health center to go to, they go into an emergency room, which is the most expensive form of healthcare, primary healthcare, in this country," he said.
In 2018, three percent of Vermont's population were uninsured, representing about 19,800 people, according to the Vermont Household Health Insurance Survey's 2018 report, of the Vermont Department of Health. More than a third of the state's population under age 65 was considered underinsured, according to the report.
This bill is similar to one Sanders introduced in 2017, which was considered by the Senate's Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
The 2017 bill, the Preserving Access to Community Based Primary Care Act, had aimed to increase funding for FQHCs from $5.1 billion in fiscal 2018 to $12.5 in fiscal 2027, according to information provided by Sanders' office. It also would have more than tripled funding for the National Health Service Corps over 10 years, from fiscal 2018 to fiscal 2027.
Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.