Havre Daily News - News you can use

By Alex Ross 

Tester says health center funding in bill


February 8, 2018

Courtesy photo

Jon Tester

Community health centers would receive $7 billion over two years as part of a larger Senate budget agreement set to be voted on today, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said in a telephone press conference Wednesday.

The budget agreement will keep the government funded after a short-term spending bill approved in January is set to expire tonight at midnight.

The inclusion of funding for health centers in the bill, Tester said, is the product of weeks of negotiations.

"After weeks of hard work, it now appears we are close to the finish line," Tester said.

Funding for community health centers expired Sept. 30 and without action from Congress, centers such as Bullhook Community Health Center in Havre and Sweet Medical Center in Chinook will lose 70 percent of their federal grant funding.

"These centers are critical to the communities and the families they serve and in many cases are the sole health provider in their region," he said.

Tester, along with Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont. and Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont. held a press conference in Washington Wednesday urging Congress to renew the funding.

Gianforte voted Tuesday for a stop gap measure that included two years of funding for community health centers.

In addition to community health centers, Tester said, the agreement will also increase funding for teaching health centers, which help address workforce shortfalls in rural areas, and the National Health Corps that rewards medical health professionals who work in underserved areas by providing assistance paying off their student debts.

He said the legislation will likely receive bipartisan support needed to pass the Senate and House, which will also have to take up the bill.

"You're always concerned until you can get the president's signature on it, but I will say this, the Senate oftentimes leads on issues like this. I think in the end if we can show a good vote here in the Senate ... I think the politics will go away and it will move forward."

More than 106,000 Montanans received health care services at Montana's 17 community health centers in 2016.

Tester said that while two years of funding for health centers is "a good first step," he said he will continue to push for a five year extension that will provide centers with more certainty.

Tester is one of a bipartisan group of 19 co-sponsors of the Community Health Investment, Modernization and Excellence Act of 2017, or CHIME Act, that would extend community health center funding for five years.

He said the legislation has still not been brought up for a vote in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Bullhook CEO Cindy Smith who was on the call said the uncertainty about federal funding has been difficult for the 5,000 patients and 70 employees at her center. She said the center is looking to hire additional employees for their medical, dental, mental health and substance abuse programs, as well as their pharmacy.

"Getting this news is really going to be great for all of them," Smith said.

Courtesy photo

Steve Daines

Flathead Community Health Center Executive Director Jody White said during the press call that renewal of the National Health Corps is crucial to recruiting and retaining health care providers to work in rural areas.

John Felton CEO of RiverStone Health in Billings, said on the call that his health center has more than 15,000 patients including in three rural communities where RiverStone is the only health care provider.

The roles the center plays in combating the opiiod crisis, as well as providing services in mental health and substance abuse treatment, and care coordination to keep people out of emergency rooms shows they are needed when it comes to funding, Felton said.

"These are long term investments, and I think that has really been the challenge as we have gone through these last 130-some odd days is just the lack of certainty," he said.


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