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Friday, March 1, 2024
March 1, 2024

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Clock ticking for community health centers in Clark County

Care advocates call for sense of urgency regarding funding

By , Columbian Health Reporter

Congress approved ongoing funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program earlier this month — more than 100 days after federal funding expired. Now, health care advocates say, it’s time for legislators to turn their attention to community health centers.

Federal grant funding for the centers, which provide health care services regardless of patients’ ability to pay, also ended in late September.

“It’s critical that health centers receive full funding in order to continue to provide access for more than 1 million Washingtonians,” said Bob Marsalli, executive director of the Washington Association of Community and Migrant Health Centers. “The magnitude of the problem can’t be understated, and the urgency for congressional action can’t be overstated.”

Statewide, there are more than 300 community health clinics serving 1 million people, Marsalli said. The federal funding accounts for up to 20 percent of health center budgets. Statewide, $227 million is at stake, Marsalli said.

In Clark County, Sea Mar Community Health Centers is the only operator of federally qualified health centers. Sea Mar has five medical clinics and two dental clinics in Clark County and offers a variety of other services, such as behavioral health, women’s health, maternity support, case management, nutrition education and health education.

In 2016, the local clinics served 33,616 people. The 2017 numbers aren’t yet available, but they’re likely higher, said Kristina Hoeschen, Sea Mar administration director.

“Sea Mar is the only health center in Clark County,” she said. “We’ve been expanding services there because the need is so great. There would be a lot of people without services if Sea Mar wasn’t there.”

Sea Mar’s federal funding will run out by the end of March, Hoeschen said. Without it, Sea Mar would likely have to reduce or eliminate its wide array of support services and focus only on medical care, she said.

“That funding is critical to our structure and who we are,” Hoeschen said.

Sea Mar doesn’t anticipate it would need to close clinics, but closures are possible for other centers across the state, Marsalli said. Failure to fund the centers, he said, would lead to 200,000 fewer people accessing primary care services and as many as 1,200 full-time equivalent job losses.

Historically, community health centers have had bipartisan support. Marsalli is confident that support still exists and funding will eventually come. In the meantime, though, health centers and their patients are left with uncertainty.

Washington Democratic Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell have been vocal advocates of the health centers, calling for a long-term funding commitment.

“The families in Vancouver and throughout Southwest Washington who rely on community health centers shouldn’t have to face this kind of uncertainty simply because Republicans refuse to work with Democrats on a long-term extension, which is why I’m going to keep urging my Republican colleagues to work with me to fix this crisis as quickly as possible,” Murray said in a statement to The Columbian.

Marsalli hopes to see the funding issue addressed in legislation that comes after the current short-term continuing resolution ends Feb. 8. And in the meantime, he and others will continue to advocate for health centers.

“We’re doing everything we can to ensure we can continue to be there,” Hoeschen said.

Columbian Health Reporter