Greg Nycz, Executive Director of Family Health Center of Marshfield, has devoted his nearly 50-year career to ensuring that people in Wisconsin have access to decent health care, especially vulnerable rural populations who, by his own description, will face growing barriers to accessing the health services they need for optimal health. This week he was up on Capitol Hill as part of a panel that briefed Hill staff and policy makers about the importance of a swift reauthorization of the Community Health Center Fund and key workforce programs.
These programs play a major role in providing access to primary care in rural and underserved areas, which is an ongoing struggle across the country. Rural counties are depopulating rapidly – young people are leaving these communities as they enter adulthood, in large part due to lack of employment opportunities, among other challenges. Older physicians serving the area retire with no one to take their place. Nycz described how National Health Service Corps (NHSC) funding is essential to acquiring providers amid a trend of declining rural medical school enrollment. But NHSC resources only go so far. There are 65 rural based primary care Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAS) in Wisconsin and the NHSC has the funding to help only five of them. Helping people, particularly Medicaid beneficiaries, access oral health services is what keeps him up at night – and is only made worse by the fact that long-term federal grant funding for health centers remains uncertain.
“We took out loans to build 10 dental centers, which is a leap of faith that Congress will continue to support us,” Nycz said. “We need answers that that faith is warranted, not in months, in years. Our communities’ health hangs in the balance.”
The need for oral health services in underserved areas is particularly acute. Nycz says eight months ago, 2,000 Medicaid families received letters from a large private dental group, indicating that they would need to find other dentists for their care, as the group would no longer be accepting Medicaid.
“How do I go to my board and say we need to put more money into additional dental centers in the face of funding cliffs?” he asked, adding, “We have programs that work, programs of proven value. What we lack is a strong signal from Congress that their constituents’ health matters to them.”
Nycz’s appearance on Capitol Hill comes as the clock is ticking for Congress to pass a long-term funding fix for health centers. Leaders from the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) meanwhile have sent a letter to House and Senate leaders urging them to make reauthorization of health centers, the NHSC and Teaching Health Centers, a top priority, underscoring, “It is difficult for the AAFP to comprehend how a long-term solution for these programs remains unresolved as we start the new year – negatively impacting access to primary care for millions of Americans.” Mandatory funding expires on May 22nd and without action from Congress, estimates are that 9 million patients would lose access to care, 47,000 providers and staff jobs would be at risk, and 2,400 health center sites would have to close. Health centers are urging Congress to act immediately to extend mandatory funding for a minimum of five years.