Health-care advocates brace for crisis   | Merrimack Valley

LAWRENCE — While a national debate over a Republican push to repeal the Affordable Care Act has dominated media this week, Congress faces another health-care deadline that would directly impact coverage for thousands of people in the Merrimack Valley.

The Greater Lawrence Family Health Center serves 60,000 patients in the Merrimack Valley and the organization’s leaders say they could lose $2 million in funding if Congress doesn’t act by Saturday.

Community health centers are subject to 70-percent cuts in federal funding if Congress fails to reauthorize money granted to them with mandatory funding initially established under the ACA.

“This is no way to run a health-care system that provides access to thousands of under-served people,” said John Silva, president and CEO of GLFHC, which runs community health centers in Lawrence and Methuen; in-school centers at Greater Lawrence Technical School in Andover and Lawrence High School; and 14 homeless health-care delivery sites from Lowell to Haverhill.

Silva said their entire network covers around 60,000 patients from more than 200 zip codes and estimated the potential loss of funding would result in an inability to serve roughly 3,000 patients.

“It’s those people that have the most difficulty accessing health care,” said Silva of the population Community Health Centers serve across the nation. “The majority of our patients, 65 percent are Masshealth and Medicaid, 11 percent are uninsured, and the rest are a mix of Medicare and private insurers … and a large percentage of the uninsured are undocumented because of the population that’s in the area.”

While Republicans have repeatedly pushed for ACA repeal — only to announce this week that they did not have enough votes to pass a repeal — Congress faces multiple deadlines Saturday, including the community health centers reauthorization; the Children’s Health Insurance Program; and the Federal Aviation Administration’s authority to operate and spend federal money.

A bipartisan bill has been filed to reauthorize funds for community health centers, titled The Community Health Investment, Modernization and Excellence, or CHIME, Act of 2017, which would extend federal funding for an additional five years.

If the bill does not pass, it would mean a loss of $196 million in funding and more than 141,000 state residents affected in Massachusetts, according to Kerin O’Toole of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers.

“The mandatory funding has bi-partisan support — it is noncontroversial,” she said in an email to The Eagle-Tribune Thursday. “The issue is that this fix is being drowned out by other issues before Congress at this time.”

The Health Centers Fund came up for reauthorization in 2015 and was fixed by Congress through a Medicare bill. The fund now faces a September 30 deadline.

According to the federal Department of Human Services, without a funding extension for health centers, 50,000 staff positions, including physicians and nurses, could be eliminated and 2,800 health center locations forced to shut their doors.

In Lawrence, Silva said the GLFHC network could “absorb this type of cut with fairly modest reductions,” but the cuts could “spell death” for smaller health centers.

A growing number of Republicans and Democrats in both the Senate and House are urging their colleagues to take immediate action on the looming problem.

Massachusetts senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey have joined 68 of their colleagues in signing a letter urging leaders of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions to urge a swift resolution to the funding cliff community health centers face at the end of the month.

“Even if they miss the Saturday deadline, there’s enough bipartisan support working on this. There may end up being a solution that’s offered in a week or two weeks. That’s my hope, and that’s what we’re counting on.”

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