This week Congress continued funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program, or CHIP, for six more years. The program’s future had been in doubt because Congress had failed to renew funding for it before it expired last September. So states had been running on reserves and short term fixes. Dollars for community health centers expired that same day. But Congress hasn’t yet re-authorized money for those centers where many kids get care.
About half of patients that go to community health centers across the country have insurance through Medicaid or CHIP, according to the National Association of Community Health Centers. These organizations get federal funding so they can afford to serve those patients and people without insurance.
While Rob Thompson of the advocacy group NC Child is excited that the Children’s Health Insurance Program was renewed, he's still frustrated it took over 100 days for Congress to do it.
“[I’m] still a little agitated....parents [went] through that uncertainty,” says Thompson.
Dr. Richard Hudspeth with Blue Ridge Community Health Services says some patients are still dealing with that uncertainty..
“I think there is a certain amount of angst among our patients about what will the services look like,” he said. “And when will Congress act to make sure that their health care provider is available to continue to take care of them.”
Blue Ridge Community Health Services has clinics in seven western North Carolina counties. Hudspeth is optimistic Congress will eventually fund community health centers.
“The fact that they have funded CHIP for six years gives us hope that they will work on finding those wins that are bipartisan wins to help continue to move healthcare in a positive direction,” he said.
A bill that would have funded community health centers stalled after facing Democratic opposition because it included cuts to other health programs. In North Carolina about half a million people went to these health centers for medical and dental care in 2016, according to the North Carolina Community Health Center Association.
Until funding comes through, the Cabarrus-Rowan Community Health Centers is putting some things on hold.
"It’s difficult to go forward and make long range plans," says CEO Kim Wagenaar.
She needs to hire a few more medical providers, but is in a hiring freeze and she was considering moving one of the clinics into a bigger building, but those plans are on hold.
“There is a building right across the street we are interested in moving the health center to,” she said.
“But without funding and knowing what the future will be we really can’t proceed forward with that.”
Wagenaar said her contingency plans call for closing at least two of her organization’s four health clinics in March, if funding doesn’t come through. If that happens, Wagenaar suspects those patients will end up going to the emergency room which is much more expensive. Hospitals would likely absorb that cost.
Congress has said it plans to address funding for community health centers in the long term spending deal. That would replace the short term fix passed this week.