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Community Health Centers Prepare For Big Cuts Because Federal Funding Uncertain

A large chunk of federal funding for community health centers in North Carolina is up in the air after Congress let the September deadline come and go without renewing funding. According to the North Carolina Community Health Center Association, last year more than half a million people got care at these centers across the state.  

Cabarrus Rowan Community Health Centers serves about 7,400 patients – about half of which are uninsured. CEO Kim Wagenaar said if lawmakers don’t renew federal funding by January, she stands lose just under half her budget. If that happens Wagenaar will likely have to close three of four locations and lay off half the doctors and physician assistants.

“These are folks that you are never going to get back because they are just hard to recruit,” she said it takes about 18 months to recruit a new physician.  

That’s partly because the job is hard. Wagenaar explains these doctors are treating underserved people with complex medical conditions and for less money than they would make in private practice. Which is why the federal government has long offered an incentive for medical professionals to work at these community health centers in the form of loan repayment. The Association of American Medical Colleges says the average debt for medical students last year was $190,000.

But that funding has also not yet been continued. That concerns Wagenaar because she fears the uncertainty will make it even hard to find providers.

Ben Money with the North Carolina Community Health Center Association is concerned if the funding doesn’t come through and  these centers start to cut back on providers and services some patients with little place else to go, may end up in the emergency room.  

“It would be a real economic hit to our hospitals and emergency rooms as well because people would show up there for more expensive care,” Money said.

According to a 2013 study emergency room visits for outpatient conditions can be more than eight times what it costs to have a visit at a community health center. A bill to that would continue funding passed the house earlier this month but didn’t gain much democratic support because it included cuts to preventive and public health funding that was part of the Affordable Care Act.