The waiting room of our community health center is thousands of miles from the U.S. Capitol, but what happens under that dome will have a direct impact on our patients.
Community Health Centers like ours bring a unique and important perspective to the national conversation on health care. At PureView Health Center we are part of a nationwide network that started more than 50 years ago to provide quality primary care in places where doctors and services were scarce or non-existent. Our health centers have since grown to serve as the family doctor, dentist, and mental health provider to more than 27 million Americans in communities all over the country. In Montana, the 17 community health centers serve over 106,000 patients annually, almost 1 in 10 of our state’s residents.
We have saved countless lives by providing affordable access to primary care. We have helped reduce the incidence of chronic disease in the most challenging rural and urban communities all over America. At a health center, patients have a more affordable option for preventive care than a hospital emergency room. We generate $24 billion in health care cost savings in the U.S., according to the National Association of Community Health Centers. We are also innovators, working with community partners to respond to public health crises, such as the opioid epidemic, the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and wildfires right here in Montana.
There is little doubt that health centers have contributed significantly to cost savings for the American taxpayer. Yet, it is not sufficient to describe us as just another health care program. We are problem-solvers that look beyond medical charts not only to prevent illness, but also to address the factors that actually cause poor health, such as homelessness, lack of nutrition, stress or unemployment and drug addiction.
For decades our health centers have drawn bipartisan support from U.S. Presidents and lawmakers -- including our own Congressional delegation -- because of our record of success. Yet, such broad support may not be enough to ensure we can continue to serve people who need affordable primary care in the future.
Right now PureView Health Center is threatened with a severe loss in funding, as are other health centers in nearly 10,000 communities. This “funding cliff,” if not fixed by Congress by the end of this month, will have a direct and immediate impact on the health of our communities. The program would be reduced by approximately 70 percent. The federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) itself has projected that the impact would be dramatic: closure of 2,800 health center locations, elimination of more than 50,000 jobs, and a loss of access to care for more than 9 million patients. PureView Health Center serves nearly 7,000 patients per year. A 70 percent reduction in our funding would mean scaling back services, serving far fewer patients, and potential elimination of critical services such as dental care and behavioral health care.
Please join PureView Health Center and all of the other health centers in Montana in calling on our federal lawmakers to extend health center funding before Sept. 30.
Let’s hope our leaders pay attention and fix the funding cliff. Our health depends on it.
Jill-Marie Steeley is the executive director of PureView Health Center in Helena.