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Letter: Health centers facing uncertainty

By Shelly Ten Napel

As CEOs representing community health centers across North Dakota and South Dakota, we are committed to advancing our mission of providing quality and affordable health care to all Dakotans, regardless of insurance status or ability to pay. We provide health care services to people in communities large and small, especially targeting rural areas and underserved populations. We are job creators and economic engines for the communities we serve. We

strive every day to foster healthy communities and healthy families.

Federal funding supports our efforts to provide these valuable services and ensure access to health care for all, funding that is now in jeopardy because of Congress' inaction. The Community Health Center Fund is a significant funding source for health centers, providing 70 percent of all federal funding for the health center program. That fund expired Oct. 1, creating a devastating funding cliff that will have real impacts on our health centers, our patients and the communities we serve. In fact, our health centers are already facing negative impacts as a result of the uncertainty that the lack of funding commitments has created.

Nationally, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that failure to reauthorize the Community Health Center Fund would lead to the closure of some 2,800 health center locations, the elimination of more than 50,000 jobs, and most importantly, a loss of access to care for some 9 million patients. In the Dakotas, the impact would be equally devastating, with a loss in federal funding of more than $20 million and more than 25,000 patients losing access to care across both states.

As we face a second month of uncertainty, we are very concerned about the future operations of our clinics and our ability to continue to serve our patients. Each day that passes creates more challenges for health centers and a greater risk that thousands of patients across the Dakotas could lose access to care. We are seeing staff losses, challenges in recruiting providers and delayed plans for future growth. If the funding cliff is not fixed, those impacts will magnify and health centers will be forced to cut services and even close sites, resulting in lost patient access to care, as well as a negative impact on local communities and economies.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed legislation to fix the funding cliff. The focus is now on the U.S. Senate to act. The only way to resolve this issue and extend the funding is through a bipartisan solution. Community health centers have historically received support for their work and mission on both sides of the aisle and that bipartisan spirit is needed now more than ever to ensure that our clinics are able to continue to provide important services to our patients and our communities. There isn't disagreement in Congress over the value of this program; they have just failed to prioritize action and allowed programs like the Community Health Center Fund, the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and the National Health Service Corps to get caught up in larger debates.

Health centers need action now. Our patients need action now. We can no longer afford the mounting uncertainty created by this funding cliff. We need predictable funding to be able to recruit providers, secure bank loans, plan for future growth and continue to provide quality, affordable care to all Dakotans. We stand by our mission to provide access to health care for all.

Now we need our senators and representatives to stand by their mission to do what is right for the people they represent.

Shelly Ten Napel is CEO of the Community HealthCare Association of the Dakotas. This letter also was signed by nine others, all leaders of community health centers in the Dakotas.