by Alex Sange, MPP
Health Centers were a hot topic during last week’s House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee hearing on Health and Human Services’ (HHS) FY2012 Budget Request featuring HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. While the hearing was focused on HHS’ budget for FY2012, many members of the subcommittee were concerned about the impact of the proposed cuts in the House-passed continuing resolution for FY2011 (H.R. 1) on their local health centers.
HHS Secretary Sebelius opened the hearing with a prepared statement highlighting the Health Center Program as the principle way HHS intends to bring quality, affordable health care to millions more Americans in the coming years. She stressed that the House-passed FY2011 cuts (H.R. 1) to Health Center funding and provider training programs would jeopardize innovation and the public health infrastructure nationwide. During questions, members from across the country raised their own concerns and echoed the Secretary’s support for the vitally important Health Centers Program:
- Ranking Subcommittee Member Henry Waxman (D-CA), in his opening statement, called the cuts in H.R. 1 “devastating,” noting that “the Community Health Centers program, which has strong bipartisan support would be cut by $1 billion, closing 127 health centers and cutting 11 million patients from care they need. Cuts of this magnitude are not belt tightening or doing more with less, they go to the core heart of the agencies that comprise HHS [and] jeopardize access to health care.”
- Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) reiterated her strong support for Health Center funding and opposition to the cuts, asking Secretary Sebelius how HHS would implement the cuts at the local level and how this will impact the 11 million patients who will lose the access to the care they now get. Secretary Sebelius replied that Community Health Centers ‘footprint’ is critically important and HHS and the President intend that this footprint will continue to grow, and that efforts to deny care, to fire providers and restrict access in the most underserved communities will put additional burdens on already strapped state and local budgets and negatively impact the health and prosperity of the nation.
- Representative Edolphus Towns (D-NY) expressed concern that under H.R. 1, HHS would lose the capacity to provide valuable services to folks that need it the most, saying: “an area that I am very concerned about is the Community Health Centers [as] they provide an extremely valuable service in my district as I imagine they do for many members on both sides of the aisle.” He asked the Secretary how HHS is dealing with the devastating cuts to Health Centers. Secretary Sebelius reiterated her support and the President’s support for Health Centers’ goal to double the number of Americans who access Health Center services. The Secretary stated that the President’s FY2012 request increases support for Health Centers and providers that serve in Health Centers and absent the Health Center expansion funded in ARRA and the Affordable Care Act, HHS anticipates people will access the most expensive forms of health care: through emergency rooms or not at all.
- Representative Tim Murphy (R-PA) reiterated his support for legislation he and Congressman Green sponsored that passed the House last year to provide medical liability coverage for volunteer Health Center providers. He asked the Secretary to have her staff further analyze the benefits and cost-savings of allowing volunteer providers to access liability coverage at Health Centers. Secretary Sebelius said she would work on additional analysis of the savings of this policy change and share it with the Congressman.
- Representative Gene Green (D-TX) was able to sit in on the subcommittee for the day and reminded subcommittee members about the importance of expanding the Health Center Program, along with asking several Health Center-related questions. Congressman Green noted that HRSA has received 800 applications for New Access Points (NAPs) and many more for Expanded Services (ES) grants and he asked the Secretary how many of these applications would be funded if H.R. 1 became law. The Secretary replied that the cuts in H.R. 1 would severely curtail any opportunities for growth in the Health Centers Program. Congressman Green also asked about HHS’ plans to expand health centers under the President’s FY2012 request, and about the opportunities HHS is planning to ensure Health Centers are able to partner with or become Teaching Health Centers. Secretary Sebelius reiterated that HHS and the President intend to continue to expand Community Health Centers to underserved communities nationwide, and that HHS is working hard to help Health Centers partner with academic health centers and explore opportunities for new and innovative models of care including Teaching Health Centers.
This vocal support from Members of Congress and the Secretary at an important hearing was very welcome and we encourage health centers from these Members’ districts to thank them for speaking up on Health Centers’ behalf and against cuts to health centers.