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Protect area health centers

November 29, 2011

By Frances M. Anthes and Antonia G. McGuire

http://www.telegram.com/graphics/one_pixel_transparent.gifPatients receiving their annual checkups at the Edward M. Kennedy Community Health Center and Family Health Center in Worcester may be hundreds of miles from the halls of the U.S. Congress, but how lawmakers decide the future of federal health care spending will likely have an immediate impact on their future. 

Despite Sen. John Kerry’s efforts, last week’s failure of the deficit-cutting Supercommittee means that once again lawmakers will be scrutinizing every federal program to stave off $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts that now have been triggered. This could include cuts to state Medicaid funds and cost-effective programs such as community health centers. 

Many residents who live in communities served by health centers are worried about what these changes will mean in tough economic times. They are low-income families, elderly or disabled Americans and children, many of whom depend on Medicaid as their source of affordable health coverage and their local community health center for access to primary and preventive health care. 

In Worcester, we have seen firsthand how health centers are a win across the board for patients, states, the federal government and communities. Community health centers are recognized as one of the most successful federal health programs ever created, with thousands of studies documenting their quality care, ability to keep costs down for Medicaid and other insurers, and role in creating jobs in economically challenged communities. 

Here in Massachusetts, health centers represent the largest primary care network in the state, serving nearly 800,000 people. Equally compelling, Massachusetts health centers care for 30 percent of the commonwealth’s Medicaid patients at a cost of only 1.3 percent of total state Medicaid spending. 

As the states and Congress grapple with how to improve the nation’s health care, we are proud of the fact that community health centers remain ahead of the curve, providing a time-tested, comprehensive approach to health care that saves money and improves health. According to a recent study by George Washington University, health centers generate annual savings of $24 billion ($1,263 per person) as a result of reducing the rate of preventable hospitalizations, inpatient days, and emergency room use across the health system. They also bring economic benefits to our communities, generating more than 10,000 jobs in Massachusetts and nearly 200,000 across the country. 

Disruptive changes to Medicaid, as well as potential cuts to health centers, could not come at a worse time. Health centers are already stretching their budgets to care for more of the working poor who are struggling to keep their jobs and health insurance, or have already lost one or both. 

What’s more, harmful changes to Medicaid could also increase the costs borne by taxpayers as patients lose a regular source of primary care and turn to expensive emergency rooms as their only option for health care. 

Likewise, Congress should be wary of deficit-cutting proposals that shift costs and provide more flexibility to states — but also run the risk of weakening the provision of basic medical care for which community health centers were created. 

Yes, we must address the growing national debt as a nation. But now is the time to be thoughtful about investing our limited resources where they will do the most good. We cannot afford to break or endanger what is working well. Community health centers are proven local solutions for improving the health of millions of Americans while significantly reducing costs across our health system. 

Isn’t that the goal in the first place? 

Frances M. Anthes is president and CEO of Family Health Center of Worcester, and Antonia G. McGuire is president and CEO of the Edward M. Kennedy Health Center. 

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