Dressed in red to signal a "red alert," the staff of PureView Health Center in Helena stood in solidarity Tuesday as Congress prepares to vote on the future funding of community health centers. 

Community health centers serve more than 10 percent of Montana’s population, providing comprehensive health care through 17 centers and 43 sites. The centers serve all patients, but primarily provide care to those without access to other primary care through mechanisms such as a sliding fee scale. The centers rely heavily on federal funding – PureView is 48 percent federal grant funded – but have not seen that funding renewed for about four months.

“It’s been a long 129 days,” said Stacey Anderson, deputy director of the Montana Primary Care Association. “I think nobody expected us to be here mostly because we’ve had such outstanding bipartisan support for the history of the program.”

The “holding pattern” waiting for Congress to act creates enormous uncertainty for community health centers, she said. A continuing resolution passed last December provides “patch funding,” but several centers have seen grants go month-to-month, resulting in hiring freezes and hampering business decisions.

Anderson cites congressional gridlock as the primary factor standing in the way of reauthorized funding, but an upcoming vote on Thursday brings optimism, Anderson said. A continuing resolution up for a vote contains a two-year funding reauthorization.

Across the country Tuesday, community health centers participated in the National #RedAlert4CHCs Day of Action in support of the legislation.

Both Anderson and PureView Executive Director Jill Steeley say they hoped for a five-year reauthorization.

“It would be great if it was five years … but the bottom line is we’re here to provide health care to people who otherwise aren’t able to access it, and we won’t be able to do that without that grant,” Steeley said. “It’s been a really stressful four months waiting for them to vote and operating in a state of limbo because we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

PureView serves nearly 9,000 patients in Helena and Lincoln, including medical, dental and mental health services. Since the “fiscal cliff” four months ago, it has instituted a hiring freeze with five positions left open.

“It hasn’t necessarily affected patient care up to this point because we have great staff that have filled in the gaps, but if it continues it will start to affect patient care and if we don’t get our funding we won’t be able to offer the same amount of services,” she said.

Both Anderson and Steeley say they’re confident in Thursday’s vote, and support they’ve seen from Montana’s delegation.

“I know that we have bipartisan support,” Steeley said. “We just need them to vote. I know they will vote, it just needs to be sooner rather than later.”

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin