Primary-Care Advocates Seek to Steer Clear of ‘Fiscal Cliff’

Garden State callers dominated Congressional hotline to support FQHCs

Health center
Nine days before the so-called fiscal cliff, primary-care advocates and their allies in Congress are rallying to prevent a potential 70 percent cut in critical federal funding that could eliminate billions of dollars in support for the nation’s Federally Qualified Health Centers.

There is growing support for a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last week and an ongoing social media campaign by the national association representing FQHCs, which treated some 27 million Americans last year, including nearly 500,000 in New Jersey. The effort continues today, and supporters are urged to use a special toll-free hotline (1-866-456-3949) that can connect them to their Congressional representatives based on ZIP code.

Garden State advocates have played a leading role in the campaign so far, making more than 1,000 of the 7,000 plus calls logged nationwide during “Cliff Call-In Monday,” according to the New Jersey Primary Care Association, the umbrella group for the 23 Garden State FQHCs. And the NJPCA’s outreach on “Tweet-a-thon Tuesday” helped confirm support for the bill from New Jersey’s Democratic delegation, as well as U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, a Republican who represents part of south Jersey.

Sparking federal action

One longtime supporter, Sen. Robert Menendez, (D-NJ), has been working for several weeks to spark federal action on the issue. Earlier this month Menendez led a roundtable discussion in Newark with leaders from several Garden State FQHCs to focus attention on the potential 70 percent funding cut.

“To let this necessary funding lapse would be a completely irresponsible assault on the health of our citizens,” Menendez said. “The nearly half a million New Jerseyans who rely on these health centers deserve a long-term extension, not kick-the-can-down-the-road politics as usual.”

While FQHCs, which were created more than 50 years ago to provide care for the nation’s most vulnerable patients, have long enjoyed strong bipartisan support, a clause tucked into a 2015 federal budget agreement would slash a traditionally dependable fund that has provided roughly 20 percent of their budgets since 2010. According to a federal analysis of the potential cut, the change could result in the closure of thousands of clinics nationwide and end or reduce care for nine million people.

Tight deadline

Primary care advocates are urging lawmakers to add their names as sponsors on a bill introduced last week by US. Rep. Elise Stafanik, a Republican from upstate New York. The Community Health Improvement, Modernization & Excellence (CHIME) Act would extend the current federal funding for FQHCs for another five years. But while support for the measure is growing, the sponsors have just over a week to get it passed both the House and the Senate and signed by the president before the funding lapses.

Earlier this week, U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) sent a letter to key GOP leaders urging them to take immediate action to avoid this primary-care fiscal cliff. Some 68 other senators, representing both parties, have since signed on, including Menendez and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ.) “If Congress allows the Community Health Centers Fund (CHCF) to lapse, it would immediately threaten patient access to the cost-effective primary care and preventative care health centers provide,” they wrote.

In New Jersey, the nearly two-dozen FQHC organizations provide care at 129 sites in urban areas and rural communities across the state, offering a wide range of treatments for children and adults. Some of these facilities could lose millions through the cut, leading to fewer services, shorter hours, and longer waits at local emergency rooms, when patients turn there for care after they can’t access their usual FQHC, according to the NJPCA.