HELENA – Staff and administrators at Helena’s PureView Health Center dressed in red Tuesday, to highlight continued calls to renew federal funding for community health centers.
It was part of a national effort called “Red Alert for Health Centers.” Leaders said more than 1,400 health centers around the country were expected to take part.
PureView provides medical, dental, mental health and other services for thousands of people around the Helena area. Many live at or below the federal poverty line, but leaders say they have patients from across the economic spectrum.
“A loss of funding at PureView would affect the entire community,” said Mike Murray, a former Lewis and Clark County commissioner and current member of PureView’s board.
More than 40 percent of the center’s budget comes from federal grants. But in September, the long-term authorization for much of that grant funding expired. Congress has passed limited extensions, but hasn’t agreed on a more permanent renewal.
PureView is one of 16 federally-supported community health centers in Montana. Together, they serve more than 100,000 people – about a tenth of the state’s population.
Stacey Anderson is deputy director of the Montana Primary Care Association, which represents the state’s health centers. She said the cycle of short extensions and continued uncertainty has made it difficult for those centers to plan operations.
“For businesses who are trying to make decisions about expanding needed services like substance-use treatment or dental services, if they’re trying to make decisions around hiring new providers or retaining providers and signing new contracts, it’s been very challenging,” she said.
Leaders with many health centers have been trying to bring attention to the funding issue for months.
“We all banded together and said Feb. 6 is the day we stand up and say, ‘Please get it done by Feb. 8,’” said Anderson.
The most recent short-term funding agreement kept the federal government operating through Thursday, Feb. 8. That means lawmakers have to approve a budget deal by then to avoid another government shutdown.
Now, political momentum may be building behind a longer-term funding solution for community health centers. House leaders proposed renewing their funding for two years, as part of the latest federal budget extension. That funding bill passed the House 245-182 Tuesday and will now go before the Senate.
Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte was among those supporting the legislation.
“Three months ago, I voted to extend this vital program, and I voted again to provide continued, predictable funding for our community health centers,” Gianforte said in a statement. “I hope the Senate will act to protect Montanans’ access to care.
A spokesperson said Gianforte is also interested in a five-year extension for community health funding. He joined the other members of Montana’s congressional delegation for a bipartisan press conference in Washington Tuesday.
“Without Congress taking action, CHCs will lose 70 percent of their funding nationwide,” said Republican Sen. Steve Daines. “Washington, D.C., needs to get this done.”
Daines’ office said he signed on as a cosponsor Tuesday for the Community Health Investment, Modernization, and Excellence Act, or CHIME Act. The bill would reauthorize the Community Health Center Fund for five years and increase funding for it.
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester cosponsored the CHIME Act in October. He said he also voted against a short-term funding deal last month partly because it didn’t include a long-term extension for community health funding.
“It is critically important that this piece of infrastructure that we have in our state and states throughout this country remain, and remain effective providers of health care,” Tester said.
Montana’s congressional delegation has focused on the community health funding issue for months. Tester and Daines both signed a letter in September urging the renewal of that funding. Gianforte’s office notes that he backed a bill with a funding extension last year, but that it was not taken up in the Senate.
“I’m confident that Montana’s representatives support community health centers,” said Anderson. “The politics at the federal level are a little trickier. I’m feeling very confident that it will get done; we just hope it’s done sooner than later.”
Anderson said she hopes for a five-year extension, but that even two years of guaranteed funding would make a big difference for health centers.