Legislation to extend funding for clinics serving poor and uninsured stalls in Congress

The CHIME Act isn't yet on the congressional calendar -- and federal funding is set to expire at the end of the month.

FILE - In this July 12, 2012 file photo, two women wait in an exam room at Nuestra Clinica Del Valle, in San Juan, Texas. About 85 percent of those served at the clinic are uninsured. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
FILE - In this July 12, 2012 file photo, two women wait in an exam room at Nuestra Clinica Del Valle, in San Juan, Texas. About 85 percent of those served at the clinic are uninsured. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Congress is fast approaching the deadline to renew federal funding for thousands of community health centers across the country, or risk leaving millions of Americans without health care.

Lawmakers must act by September 30, the end of the current federal fiscal year, to extend the Community Health Center Fund, which provides $3.6 billion of funding to nearly 1,400 community health center organizations. The health centers serve approximately 26 million people, including about 1.2 million homeless people and more than 900,000 migrant farmworkers.

Last week, Reps. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), David Young (R-IA), Joe Courtney (D-CT), and Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ) introduced legislation that would extend funding for community health centers for five years, with some increases to address demand for care in certain areas. But congressional consideration of the Community Health Investment, Modernization and Excellence (CHIME) Act of 2017 has not yet been scheduled. The bill currently has 13 cosponsors.

The lack of action is most likely because Congress has “so many other important things on their platter,” Dan Hawkins, senior vice president for public policy and research at the National Association of Community Health Centers, told ThinkProgress. As the health care debate in Congress centers largely around broad efforts to expand or limit the Affordable Care Act, “in the bigger scheme of things, we’re small potatoes,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins added that health center advocates have been in talks with House and Senate leaders and feel confident that if Congress makes the time, the CHIME Act will be passed. Funding for community health centers has historically received broad bipartisan support. 

“The CHIME Act doesn’t just reauthorize the Community Health Center Fund — it significantly increases it,” House Energy and Commerce Press Secretary Jennifer Sherman told ThinkProgress in a email. “The questions regarding increased funding and the length of extension should in part depend on bipartisan offsets, which are currently under negotiation.”

But the hurdle is the congressional calendar, Hawkins said. There are only four legislative days left before the September 30 deadline.

Without the extension, about 2,800 health center locations face a 70 percent cut in funding. Thousands of clinics would be forced to close, leaving an estimated nine million patients — many of whom reside in vulnerable and underserved areas — without access to health care. Other clinics would be compelled to dramatically scale back their services, potentially getting rid of critical dental, substance abuse, and behavioral health care services.

Most of the patients who rely on community health centers are either uninsured or publicly insured through Medicaid or Medicare. Seventy-one percent of patients are below the federal poverty line.

“We are worried that the uncertainty regarding funding will force health centers to immediately halt any long-term plans that can’t be sustained on month-to-month funding,” Cassidy Heit, public policy and communications associate at the Oklahoma Primary Care Association, told ThinkProgress in an email.

“If Congress waits until the end of the year to protect health center funding, health centers in Oklahoma with grant years starting in January could be forced to close down entirely,” Heit added. “Especially for small rural health centers operating on small margins, cuts or even inaction could be devastating for their communities.”