Crisis looming in community health care funding

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With less federal funding, centers will have to reduce hours, reduce staff and limit services. Nationally, that could

By Joan Quigley

Congress is sick and tired of talking about health care, so few in Washington are paying attention to a financial crisis they're inflicting on a program both parties have always been very proud of.  But if they don't fix the problem they created two years ago, plenty of people will be hurt and angry.

During bipartisan budget reconciliations in 2015, Congress agreed to cut health programs, and since everything happened quickly, many members never read the complete bill.  When they learned it included a 70% cut to federal funds supporting FQHC's, they reacted swiftly to prevent that.  No one wanted to look like they were undercutting the intent of the bill, however, so they merely voted to delay the cut for two years. They figured they'd have time to find another way to save money.

We all know what happened.  Healthcare became the toxic issue of 2017, and now FQHC's are facing a 70% cut in federal funding on Sept. 30.

What will that mean here in Hudson County?  Let's start by describing what an FQHC is.

In 1965, when then-President Lyndon Johnson began the War on Poverty, neighborhood health centers were created to provide health and social services in poor and underserved communities.  Centers are funded directly by the federal government and governed by boards comprised of users and community representatives.  They have to meet high standards set by the Health Resources and Services Administration which controls their policies and operations.

In 1989 Congress created the name "Federally Qualified Health Centers" and ensured clinics could continue to operate using funds authorized under Section 330 of the Public Health Service Act without state interference or direction.  They must meet community needs and provide services in a culturally competent way.  They are open to everyone, regardless of anyone's insurance status or ability to pay.

The centers provide adult care, pediatrics, dentistry, obstetrics and behavioral health counseling.  They don't offer surgery or specialty services but have referral agreements with providers who do.  With less federal funding, centers will have to reduce hours, reduce staff and limit services.  Nationally, that could cost 50,000 jobs and loss of access to care for about nine million patients.

Not all FQHC patients rely on 330 funds, of course.  Some have Medicare or Medicaid, and a few have private insurance. However, our state provides charity care reimbursement for those whose bills aren't fully paid by HRSA or other funds. It's been estimated that FQHCs save the US healthcare system about $24 billion a year by limiting emergency room visits and improving health outcomes.

Today about 1,400 FQHCs are medical homes for more than 26 million people across the country in rural and low-income urban areas. North Hudson Community Action Corporation's eleven health centers treated 71,666 individuals last year in Hudson, Bergen and Passaic Counties. Jersey City-based Metropolitan Health Center treated 16,566 persons, and Alliance Community Healthcare, also based in Jersey City, treated several thousand more. A 70% cut totals about $6 million less for our area.

But that 70% cut doesn't mean 70% fewer people will need vaccinations, preventative care, and treatment for sudden or chronic conditions.  Those who can't be seen in FQHCs will flock to hospital ERs, meaning much more than $6 million will be paid by New Jersey taxpayers via charity care.

There are only a few days left to make Congress pay attention to the crisis.  Sen. Robert Menendez and most of this area's Congressmen are aware and trying to help, but it's going to take a massive groundroots effort to wake up the others before it's too late.

Please join in and urge Congress to save FQHC's.

 A former assemblywoman from Jersey City, Joan Quigley is the president and CEO of the North Hudson Community Action Corp. She is a columnist for The Jersey Journal.

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