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Budget deal extends funding for community clinics

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After four months of delay over the issue, Congress voted to extend funding for community health centers in the federal budget deal passed early Friday and signed by the president.

Community health centers - low-cost clinics offering discounted or free treatment to low-income individuals and families - have been in the lurch since a major source of their funding ran out at the end of September. The loss of the Community Health Center Fund, distributed by the Department of Health and Human Services, would have forced clinics to limit hours, freeze hiring and restrict services.

Community health centers provide care to 140,000 patients across Dauphin, Cumberland, Lancaster, York and Franklin counties and employ 1,000 people, according to the Pennsylvania Association of Community Health Centers. Faced with losing the fund, many clinics began implementing hiring freezes and cancelingplans for expansion.

But in a vote last night to re-open the federal government hours after a brief shutdown, Congress agreed to extend the fund for two years, prompting a sigh of relief from clinics in Central Pennsylvania.

"We are relieved to finally have a congressional commitment for continued funding of community health centers," said Dr. Hilda Shirk, president and CEO of Lancaster Health Center.

Lancaster Heath, formerly known as SouthEast Lancaster Health Services, provides care to 22,000 low-income patients at its six facilities across Lancaster County. According to its 2016-17 annual report, the nonprofit provider had $15.2 million in revenue, 16 percent of which came from the federal fund.

"It’s been a long four months waiting, educating, and advocating to assure that our patients continue to receive the healthcare they need and deserve," said Shirk.

While organizations like Lancaster Health also receive revenue from Medicaid and Medicare payments, as well as additional grants and donations, the loss of the fund would have been insurmountable for many clinics.

According to numbers released by HHS, the loss of the fund could have meant the closure of 2,800 clinics nationwide, resulting in the loss of 50,000 jobs and treatment for 9 million patients.

Jim Willshier, policy director for the Pennsylvania Community Health Center Association, said member clinics are breathing easier.

"It’s a huge help to provide more relief and certainty for our health centers through the fall of 2019," said Willshier. 

In preparation for the potential loss of the fund, clinics had already begun acting on contingency plans, such as instituting hiring freezes.

"For those jobs that were frozen, they’ll be able to start interviewing and filling those positions now, too, which will be great for them," said Willshier.

Willshier hopes legislators can learn from this fight when the fund comes up for renewal in fall 2019.

"Hopefully this is a learning experience, and when we come to this point again it won’t be like this. We’ll be able to work together in a bipartisan way," said Willshier.

Hilda Shirk expressed a similar sentiment, saying the recent debate could serve as "a cautionary tale of a system that all too often discounts the basic needs of vulnerable populations."

"Now we can focus on what we do best - care for the medical and dental needs of our neighbors," said Shirk.

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