Low-in­come hurt by fund­ing ‘cliff ’

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - OPINION - BY LOU CARMICHAEL Carmichael is CEO of Va­ri­ety Care Inc.

Avir­u­lent flu sea­son is un­der­way and the num­ber of opi­oid over­doses con­tin­ues to climb, leav­ing Ok­la­homans in a state of cri­sis. Com­mu­nity Health Cen­ters like Va­ri­ety Care are lead­ing ef­forts to pro­vide a so­lu­tion to this cri­sis, but we’re run­ning out of time and money.

Crit­i­cal fund­ing for our pro­gram ex­pired Oct. 1. Since then, Com­mu­nity Health Cen­ters have been op­er­at­ing un­der a “fund­ing cliff.” This phrase would lead one to think this is an is­sue solely about money. It is much more. It’s about peo­ple and how de­ci­sions made (or left un­made) by Con­gress can have a rip­ple ef­fect.

When peo­ple are sick, they need an ac­ces­si­ble place to go for af­ford­able care. At Va­ri­ety Care, we’re do­ing ev­ery­thing we can to en­sure our doors re­main open and our pa­tients re­ceive qual­ity care, but it isn’t easy. In 2017, Va­ri­ety Care pro­vided care for 120,000 Ok­la­homans, in­clud­ing more than 19,000 unin­sured pa­tients and 32,000 chil­dren. So far, 2018 has shown no sign that the num­ber of pa­tients need­ing care will de­crease: In Jan­u­ary, Va­ri­ety Care had al­most 21,000 med­i­cal en­coun­ters. If fund­ing isn’t re­newed, thou­sands of un­der­served pa­tients could lose ac­cess to care.

Com­mu­nity Health Cen­ters in Ok­la­homa and around the coun­try are fac­ing tough choices. They are lay­ing off staff, cut­ting back ser­vices and plan­ning for site clo­sures.

The U.S. Depart­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices has pro­jected the im­pact of the fund­ing cliff will re­sult in the clo­sure of 2,800 Com­mu­nity Health Cen­ter sites and the loss of health care ac­cess for 9 mil­lion pa­tients.

Health care for more than 27 mil­lion peo­ple is be­ing run on a mon­thto-month ba­sis be­cause Con­gress has failed to ex­tend fund­ing for our pro­gram. The im­pact to care teams can­not be over­stated: Doc­tors, nurses, and med­i­cal as­sis­tants can­not be re­cruited or coaxed to re­main in our most ru­ral and med­i­cally un­der­served ar­eas. Medicines or other sup­plies can­not be pur­chased be­yond the next month.

This isn’t how a health sys­tem should run — par­tic­u­larly the Com­mu­nity Health Cen­ter pro­gram that has served the na­tion so well in terms of sav­ing lives and dol­lars. Health cen­ters like ours have been in place for more than 50 years, open­ing ac­cess to care and pro­vid­ing a more af­ford­able op­tion for preven­tive care than a hospi­tal emer­gency room.

Com­mu­nity Health Cen­ters gen­er­ate $24 bil­lion in health care cost sav­ings. Va­ri­ety Care has a per-pa­tient cost of less than $725 per year, which in­cludes med­i­cal, den­tal, be­hav­ioral health, phar­macy, nu­tri­tion and so­cial ser­vices. The value Com­mu­nity Health Cen­ters pro­vide is an in­vest­ment yield­ing tan­gi­ble re­turns. The cost of one sin­gle emer­gency room visit is more than twice Va­ri­ety Care’s an­nual per-pa­tient cost. Our record of suc­cess is why our pro­gram has earned bi­par­ti­san sup­port from U.S. pres­i­dents and law­mak­ers.

And here’s the bit­ter irony about the cliff: Most ev­ery­one agrees Con­gress should ex­tend fund­ing and act now. Law­mak­ers must move be­yond the po­lit­i­cal de­bate and in­vest in af­ford­able, ac­ces­si­ble care for work­ing Ok­la­homans and their fam­i­lies.

Lou Carmichael

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