Editors Note: NACHC staff Amy Simmons Farber and Oliver Spurgeon are contributors to this blog post.
The busy year for health center funding activity in Congress continues. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee has passed a bipartisan measure that aims to curb high costs and unexpected bills for patients, and includes a five-year funding reauthorization for America’s Health Centers (see NACHC press release). The bill, S. 1895, the Lower Health Care Costs Act, was introduced by Senate HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) and passed out of the Committee by a vote of 20-3.
In addition to extending the Community Health Center Fund, S. 1895 also extends funding for the National Health Service Corps (NHSC), and the Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education (THCGME) Program for five years.
“This legislation also extends mandatory funding for Community Health Centers, and four additional public health programs, to ensure the  million Americans who rely on these centers for primary care and other health care can continue to access care close to home, offered by Senator Murray and me, along with Senators Casey, Cramer, Klobuchar, and Murkowski,” said Alexander (view full text of remarks). “We have paid for this extension for five years with savings from other parts of the larger bill, which will prevent the uncertainty and anxiety of short-term extensions.”
Murray noted the health center provision was part of a bundle of bipartisan amendments to the bill and that “this provision more than doubles the duration of the previous extension” of health center funding.
Committee passage of such a measure is remarkable for a number of reasons. First, at the outset of the new Congress, many people expected health care to continue to be a contentious and partisan policy issue limiting any potential progress this year. Instead, there is bipartisan unity in both the House and Senate for seeking solutions to many different health care issues and health center funding continues to be chief among them. Second, the five-year reauthorization of health centers, NHSC and Teaching Health Centers comes amid a tight fiscal environment in which many programs are fighting for survival.
To circle back, less than two years ago, health centers were thrown into uncertainty when mandatory funding for the program expired. Lawmakers finally acted several months later and extended the funding for another two years. Now, there is clear recognition among lawmakers from both sides of the aisle that a long-term solution is needed for health centers to continue their important work: providing access to primary and preventive care in rural and underserved communities, addressing the national opioid crisis, serving our veterans, and responding to public health needs during natural disasters.
In fact, at their first hearing of the 116th Congress last January, senators on the HELP Committee heard testimony from health center leaders from around the country who described how stable funding has helped expand services to patients suffering from opioid use disorder and mental illness. Also, earlier this month House lawmakers held a hearing on the vital importance of investing in health care programs. And in the first six months of this Congress, there have been several bills introduced to extend funding for health centers. You can learn about them by visiting the NACHC advocacy page.
So where do we go from here? The Senate measure, S. 1895, is on track to be voted on by the full Senate, hopefully sometime in July. The House Energy and Commerce Committee may also set aside time early in July to consider their version of legislation to address a wide variety of health issues, including health center funding. That package may or may not look similar to what the Senate HELP Committee put forward, potentially setting health centers up to be included in negotiations on a final package over the next couple of months.
It won’t be an easy feat to get this over the finish line. In addition to the high cost associated with our funding fix, Congress has a long list of other items it needs to address before September 30, including budget deal negotiations and completion of all 12 annual Appropriations bills – including the Labor, Health and Human Services bill which is another critical source of health center funding! And they have limited time to complete their to-do list since they will break for August recess and head back to their home districts for 5-6 weeks.
But we have good reason for optimism. Your outstanding work over the past six months, and the years before that, has gotten us to this point. Nine years after the original Community Health Center Fund was created, you have become experts in telling the story of health centers and the critical work that this funding supports in communities across the country every day. We have Members of Congress of all political persuasions working on our behalf. And we’ve got the support of 28 million patients who are counting on us to get this done.
So keep up the calls and emails to Members of Congress urging their support in the weeks ahead. And if you haven’t done so before, it’s not too late to join us – visit our HCAdvocacy page to take action! As always, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org with any additional questions and stay tuned to the NACHC blog for more updates.