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Saturday, May 26 News

Community health centers brace for cuts to federal funding

NORWALK — As a treacherous mixture of sleet and rain came down Wednesday afternoon, patients lined up at the front desk of the Norwalk Community Health Center.

The center is one of 16 in Connecticut that receives federal funds to act as the country’s health care safety net, providing care to patients for costs based on income, with those below the poverty line paying a nominal fee. In 2016, the Norwalk Community Health Center saw nearly 14,000 patients, 75 percent of whom had incomes beneath the poverty line. Across the U.S. and its territories, over 24 million patients receive care from federally funded health centers every year.

Norwalk Community Health Center CEO Craig Glover sat in the corner of the waiting room and contemplated what the loss of that funding would mean.

Because funding for federally qualified health centers was not renewed before Congress adjourned at the end of August, the Norwalk Community Health Center stands to lose $1.8 million — 15 percent of its budget — beginning the end of April unless funding is renewed in budget that is currently under consideration.

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Community center funding for 2017

Unless funding is renewed, these organizations could see federal contributions drop by 70 percent beginning the end of April.

Norwalk Community Health Center: $2.7 million

Optimus Health Care (Stamford, Bridgeport, Stratford/Milford): $5.5 million

Southwest Community Health Center (Bridgeport): $3.5 million

Connecticut Institute for Communities (Danbury): $1.9 million

Family Centers (Greenwich): $0.8 million

Charter Oak Health Center (Hartford): $5.7 million

Generations Family Health Center (Willimantic, Danielson, Norwich, Putnam): $3.8 million

First Choice Health Centers (East Hartford, Manchester, Vernon): $3.1 million

Cornell Scott-Hill Health Corporation (New Haven): $6.0 million

Community Health Center (Middletown): $7.5 million

Staywell Health Care (Waterbury): $3.5 million

Community Health Services (Hartford): $4.2 million

Fair Haven Community Health Clinic (New Haven, East Haven): $4.3 million

Community Health and Wellness Center of Greater Torrington (Torrington): $2.0 million

United Community Services (Norwich, Jewett City, Moosup): $1.3 million

The Wheeler Clinic (Hartford, Bristol, New Britain): $0.9 million

“We probably would have to discontinue our services,” Glover said. “If not discontinue, certainly cut back.”

He believes the loss of funding would mean that the center would see between 2,000 and 2,500 fewer patients per year and an exponential increase in wait times from services ranging from general and pediatric care to women’s and mental health services.

“As a result, we know people aren’t going to wait two months (for an appointment), so that will force a reduction. And there will be less people here to take care of them as well,” he said.

Dennis Torres, vice president of health care programs at Family Centers in Greenwich, described the impact cuts would have. “Should funding be jeopardized, it will be difficult for health centers like ours to maintain a high level of care, and (it would) leave our most vulnerable patients without access to the services they desperately need.”

Politicians in the state expressed a desire to renew the funding.

“Support for community health centers is long overdue,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said. “These vital medical care facilities are essential to Connecticut and the country.”

“The community health centers provide such needed services,” Norwalk Mayor Harry Rilling said of the centers. “It boils down to these health services help us economically and socially. They’re very important.” The Norwalk Community Health Center was chosen as one of two recipients of proceeds from the Mayor’s Ball in January.

State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, Chair of the Public Health Committee, said data showed that community health centers were more effective and less costly than treating people in emergency settings. He gave the example of an elderly man who had ended up in the emergency room multiple times of the course of a summer before people realized it was because his home lacked air conditioning. “When you have a community-based approach, where people are collaborating, you can solve problems in a more fundamental fashion,” he said.”

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And the state Senate Democratic caucus released a letter Thursday calling on Congressional leaders to prioritize the extension of funding for community health centers.

“[This is] not just a humanitarian disaster, it’s a fiscal one as well,” they wrote. “If patients don’t have access to primary care in their communities, they turn to hospital emergency rooms for routine care, or defer needed care until their health problems are more serious and more costly.”

While community health centers have bipartisan support in both the U.S. House and Senate, wrangling over the budget has made funding difficult to pass. This week, the House passed a continuing resolution including funding for the centers and the Senate passed a comprehensive budget that did the same.

“So in effect, we have approval in the house and the senate, but it’s not in the same piece of legislation,” said James Maloney, the CEO of the Connecticut Institute for Communities out of Danbury, which stands to lose $1.3 million in funding.

“And until we get that resolved, we have until the April deadline to take a long walk off a short pier and end up in the soup,” he said. “Not just Danbury and Hartford — but the entire United States.”

rschuetz@hearstmediact.com; @raschuetz

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