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Congress seeking health center funds

Warren, Pressley lead push for $7.6 billion in emergency funding

Saraya Wintersmith, WGBH News
Congress seeking health center funds
A COVID testing site at the Bowdoin Street Health Center. BANNER PHOTO

More than 100 Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to the top leaders of the House and Senate last Thursday seeking support for additional funding for the nation’s community health centers.

The 139 senators and representatives, led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, both of Massachusetts, along with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, requested an immediate infusion of $7.6 billion in emergency funding and $77.3 billion to secure the long-term finances of community health centers.

“Throughout this pandemic, CHCs have served as one our nation’s most critical frontline providers. Serving almost 30 million rural and urban low-income people across America, CHCs provide testing and medical care within the nation’s most vulnerable and hardest hit communities,” the letter reads. “Further, as the economic ramifications of this pandemic continue to grow CHCs have become increasingly relied upon.

“Today, as many as 26 million people have lost their jobs and with it employer-sponsored health coverage, leaving millions of people without adequate access to health care,” it continues. “It is unfair and unsustainable for CHCs to meet an increased demand all while operating with limited funding and resources.”

The letter is addressed to the Senate’s Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer as well as the House’s Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

Nationwide, the federal government has poured billions of dollars into propping up cash-strapped health centers, bolstering their capacity to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic with expanded testing and telehealth capabilities. A coronavirus relief bill passed in March, for example, included $1.3 billion for the centers.

In Massachusetts, where about 1-in-7 residents rely on health centers for care, the 38 federally-qualified organizations last month received $36.5 million under that legislation.

The letter notes that “the East Boston Neighborhood Community Health Center has provided culturally-responsive and affordable care for more than 300 COVID-19 patients, many of whom are residents in Chelsea, MA — a majority Latinx community — in what is now the largest hot spot in the state.”

The letter points to “disproportionate infection rates in black and brown communities,” a pattern seen in partial racial-ethnic data collected on COVID-19 cases in Mass. and other parts of the country.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate communities across America, most specifically people of color and low-income communities, it is imperative to our broader public health and safety goals that CHCs receive the funding they need to effectively meet the challenges before them,” the letter reads.

The lawmakers are pushing for a big increase in additional funding to ensure the institutions have post-pandemic stability.

The letter also called for a five-year reauthorization of the Community Health Center Fund, set to expire at the end of November, saying it will “not only help our health centers meet the immediate needs of all of their patients during this pandemic, but set a strong foundation for the long-term recovery that lies ahead. And, when the pandemic subsides and every single American needs COVID-19 testing, and later, vaccinations, our health centers can and will be ready.”

Saraya Wintersmith covers Dorchester, Roxbury and. Mattapan for WGBH News 89.7.

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