PHC in Missoula joins other community health centers in urging Congress to act

Laurie Francis, right, talks with clients at Partnership Health Center in Missoula during Tuesday’s “Red Alert,” a day of action in which health centers across the country called on Congress to reauthorize the Community Health Center Fund. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Partnership Health Center in Missoula joined other community health centers across Montana on Tuesday in a day of action aimed at Congress and its failure to reauthorize funding for the centers and their essential community programs.

The Community Health Center Fund supports 17 health centers in 40 locations across Montana alone. Together, they provide basic primary care for more than 106,000 state residents, including 15,000 people who utilize the Missoula clinic.

An estimated 27,000 Montana residents could lose care if Congress fails to reauthorize funding on a long-term basis, according to the state.

“What we’re worried about is that we won’t be able to expand services,” said Laurie Francis, executive director of Partnership Health Center in Missoula. “There’s still a high percentage of the Missoula and Mineral county population who aren’t well-served with affordable health care.”

Francis and other clinicians at the downtown Missoula center – the state’s second largest – donned red in a day of national action intended to urge lawmakers to extend long-term funding for community health centers.

Last September, Congress failed to reauthorize the centers’ funding stream. The temporary budget bill passed last month is set to expire again this week, and the uncertainty over the patchwork approach has further impacted community health centers across the state and nation.

“Many of our patients have complex health conditions and limited resources,” Francis said. “If we’re to support the lives of all members of our community, we need a commitment from our lawmakers to extend funding.”

Both Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, along with Rep. Greg Gianforte, have called on fellow lawmakers to support the Community Health Center Fund, though it was Tester who voted against last month’s budget bill because it didn’t including health center funding.

Still, on Tuesday, the state’s entire congressional delegation joined a bipartisan press conference on Capitol Hill to affirm their support for a long-term funding solution.

“It has been 130 days since Congress failed to fund community health centers and put them in a world of hurt,” Tester said. “Without long-term funding, these health care facilities could close down and lay off staff.”

Daines added, “With 17 community health centers in Montana, they’re vital to providing health care to thousands of Montanans. Health care is a priority for Montanans and Washington, D.C., needs to get this done.”

But operating funds remain tied up in partisan politics, as funding for community health centers expired 130 days ago. And while Congress has passed four short-term budgets since then, each one has failed to renew funding for the facilities.

Without that funding, 36 percent of community health centers across the country are at risk of closing, according to report by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Roughly 20 percent have already instituted a hiring freeze, and 4 percent have laid off staff.

Francis said the Missoula center has established a diversified funding stream with a budget of around $26 million and, as a result, it’s not facing immediate cuts. However, she said, the federal government provides the center with $4.7 million to see people who can’t afford services, and roughly $3 million of that could be lost without action by Congress.

“We have a diversified funding stream, so we’ll make sure we provide access to medical, dental and behavioral health care, and that we continue to fund the people we have here,” Francis said. “But without being able to maintain this funding, we wouldn’t be able to expand those (other) programs.”

Those include a new opioid treatment effort and a prenatal program for mothers. Funding uncertainty – or a loss of funding altogether – could also disrupt the state’s network of community health centers.

Some centers could shut down and an estimated 27,000 patients could lose primary care.

“Historically, health centers have always had really strong bipartisan support,” said Francis. “But I feel like it’s a crap shoot now, and it never has been before.”