California clinics face deep cuts if Congress doesn't act soon

Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Clinics that provide health care for the poorest Californians stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars if Congress doesn’t act soon.

It’s been nearly two months since Congress blew past its deadline to renew federal funding for community health centers. More than $600 million is on the line in California and clinics are nervously watching to see if that money is renewed before it runs out at the end of the year.

"If we were indefinitely delayed, or don’t get this money, then we would have no choice but to cut back on staff and patients and services," said Kim Wyard, CEO of Northeast Valley Health Corporation.

The nonprofit runs 14 clinics in the San Fernando Valley that stand to lose more than $8 million, she said, adding that amount represents 125 staff members and the clinics’ ability to handle 40,000 patient visits.

More than 1,200 community health centers treated 6.2 million Californians last year, according to the California Primary Care Association's 2016 annual report.

"This is a massive cut that will impact every health center in communities throughout California," said Carmela Castellano-Garcia, president and CEO of the Primary Care Association. "It will likely mean everything from staff layoffs to scaling back services to reducing hours of operation. It could mean closing sites in certain communities."

Poor Californians would bear the brunt of those cuts. According to Castellano-Garcia, most people who use the state’s community health centers earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $49,000 for a family of four.

The U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration oversees the health center funding. The federal office has said it will provide a small lifeline of funding to some clinics as resources allow.

"There’s only so many dollars that [the Health Resources & Services Administration] has to work with," said Wyard. "So, we’ve already been told that our funding for January will be one month of funding and it’s hard to run a business on one month of funding."

Louise McCarthy, president of the Community Clinic Association of Los Angeles County, echoed Wyard's concern, saying many L.A. clinics are having a hard time deciding whether to go forward with lease agreements and planned hires.

"This is going to have a very chilling effect on the ability of health centers to recruit and to do any basic business planning," said McCarthy.

Community clinics employ more than 30,000 people in the state, according to Andie Patterson, director of government affairs at the California Primary Care Association.

Assemblyman Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg), chair of the Assembly Health Committee, recently attended a Sacramento rally to urge Congress to fund community health centers and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

"Without this critical funding – and we’re already seeing this – these health centers will see a disruption in their operations," said Wood. "They will not be able to recruit providers, sign contracts, or plan future budgets and services."

He added: "We also need to remember that these health centers are a critical part of our local economies. They bring in state and federal funding, provide well-paying professional jobs and contribute nearly $4 billion to our state’s economy."

Advocates expressed disappointment that Congress has failed to renew a program that historically has enjoyed bipartisan support.

"Community health centers have been the darling of the Bush administration, of the Obama administration," said McCarthy. "Folks have always seen the community health centers as a resource that’s critical in their communities regardless of party."