Nearly six months after funding expired for community health centers, Congress finally approved sorely needed federal dollars for these vital safety-net clinics. While the move averts further service disruptions, unfortunately it's a short-term funding deal that leaves the centers potentially facing another crisis two years from now.
The package that passed through Congress last week to avert a government shutdown included $3.8 billion for community health centers (CHCs) for 2018 and another $4 billion in 2019. That both sums are an increase over the $3.6 billion provided in 2017 does not allay concerns about the two-year time frame. In contrast, Congress approved a 10-year extension for another safety net, the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
No one should begrudge the long-term funding for CHIP, which covers 8.6 million kids nationally. But CHCs merited the same certainty that comes with having the dollars assured for a decade.
The longer window would have given the hardworking leaders of these clinics the assurance they need to enter into long-term building leases and technology contracts. It also would have helped them recruit medical providers. That's a big concern when these clinics provide care in what are known as "medically underserved areas."
The term refers to remote rural communities and economically challenged urban neighborhoods. In other words, nonprofit CHCs operate where for-profit providers often aren't willing to. Finding care providers that are willing to work in these locations is a challenge. It would be easier if CHC staffers could provide assurance that a key funding stream won't be held up by political gamesmanship again — at least for a while.
There was an upside to the funding delay. Public awareness of the vital role CHCs play grew as advocates sounded the alarm. The centers, which operate on a sliding-fee scale, care for 27 million patients nationwide. In Minnesota, they serve about 180,000 in clinics from Grand Marais to north Minneapolis.
State allies also came forward. State Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, merits praise for authoring a backup plan if federal funding didn't come through. Having a "Plan B" for CHCs still merits an airing in the coming session. Too much uncertainty remains over future federal support, and state lawmakers should have an emergency plan in place.