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Health centers win funding to expand services

Laws and LegislationFinancePersonal IncomeHealth Care Reform (2009)

Maryland is slated to receive almost $15 million in the next round of funding from the federal health care reform law to upgrade and expand community health centers, mostly in the Baltimore area.

Health centers are a main provider of primary care services for disadvantaged patients in urban and rural areas around the country. The Affordable Care Act included $11 billion over five years to expand them.

This round will send $726 million to centers nationwide.

"With the new infusion of funds, the centers will be better able to meet growing demand for services," said Mary Wakefield, administrator of the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, in a conference call with reporters.

Federal health officials couldn't say what would happen to the remaining $8.5 billion in funds, mainly for operations and service improvements, if the Supreme Court overturns all or part of the health care law in coming months.

In the meantime, federal officials say reform law funds have supported the centers' growth. About 257 centers have been expanded or created around the country and 730 are expected to benefit over time. About 3 million more patients have been served in the past few years.

In Maryland, the bulk of this round of funding goes to Baltimore Medical System Inc., Chase Brexton Health Services and People's Community Health Center, which will get $14.44 million for renovations and expansions. Three Lower Counties Community Services Inc. in Salisbury also will get $500,000 for immediate facility needs.

The centers together expect to serve an additional 27,737 patients once improvements are made.

With about $4.4 million in funding, Baltimore Medical System plans to add 3,000 to its roster of 10,000 patients at its St. Agnes center, said Jay Wolvovsky, president and CEO of the system, which runs six community and eight school-based centers.

He hopes to keep growing, no matter what the Supreme Court decides. But if fewer people gain coverage, the centers will have to find new ways to pay for their care. Operations are supported by government grants, payments from Medicaid and some Medicare and private insurance. There are 16 nonprofit clinics in Maryland.

"Community health centers still have a mission to serve low-income people and people who have difficultly getting access to primary care," he said. "There are needs out there, and they aren't going away no matter if people are insured or uninsured."

The sentiment was shared by the state's political leadership, who said the centers are a cost-effective means of providing health care to disadvantaged people. The centers are "providing critical care to the most vulnerable in our communities: the uninsured and the underinsured," said Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who has spearheaded health care reform efforts in Maryland.

"This is what the Affordable Care Act is all about — providing quality care to more people," said Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat and member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal health legislation. "The doors to community health centers are always open, and often they are the only primary care option for thousands of Maryland families."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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