The Affordable Care Act has fostered major enhancements in our health care system and improved the lives of millions of people who are newly insured and getting care.
Community-based health centers — like the ones we direct — played a major role in that progress by expanding services and providing free or affordable care to many more people, thanks to increased federal funding. About one in 15 Americans use community health centers, thanks to a quiet but critical expansion that has helped many more people find a medical home, get treatment and lead healthier lives.
Despite this progress, many Americans still lack access to the affordable primary care they desperately need. Some live in rural areas; many others live in cities, including Baltimore, where there are simply not enough primary care providers who accept Medicaid or treat uninsured patients. Some are insured but live in poorly served areas; many others remain uninsured and can't pay for treatment.
While the need remains great, we are at risk of reversing our progress in providing more people with better care. Without action by Congress, federal funding to support those community health providers will be drastically cut — by as much as 70 percent.
In Maryland, these community providers — or Federally Qualified Health Centers — stand to lose more than $25 million in federal funding beginning in mid-2015. That will result in a loss of access to care for between 29,000 and 34,500 people in our state. These are people who live in Baltimore City and its suburbs, around Washington, D.C., and in Maryland's rural areas.
Our organizations — nonprofits created to serve the community — will also be hurt badly. The federal grants underpin our operations, stabilize our finances and help us attract other resources. A major cutback will lead to the closure of health center sites, layoffs of health center staff and, most importantly, a loss of access to care for a huge number of our patients.
We know these patients and understand the enormous challenges they face. Many of them work but can't afford insurance; many others simply don't qualify for coverage or require more intensive services not covered by insurance alone. They often deal with a range of challenges, from chronic asthma to heart disease to mental health issues to residential instability and homelessness. Community health centers are located conveniently to provide our patients with the primary and specialty care they need.
If these community health centers are forced to cut back, many patients will simply go without care, even for treatable problems, becoming increasingly unhealthy and at greater risk of needing costly, urgent procedures. Others will resort to using hospitals' emergency rooms for primary care or other treatment. This is a grossly inefficient way to receive medical care, and all of us will absorb the costs through higher insurance premiums and increased fees.
Already, millions of people across the country still lack regular access to primary care services. It would be a tragedy to leave even more people without access to affordable medical care.
Over the next few months, Congress must act to protect existing health center capacity and continue to expand health centers to meet the need for affordable and accessible care. As health centers, we seek a five-year continuation of our mandatory funding to allow us to maintain our operations and expand our services to provide care to millions more Americans who still lack access.
It's a smart investment. Community health centers have demonstrated that they improve health and eliminate disparities in care that lead to worse health for minorities and low-income Americans. They are also cost-efficient, saving more than $1,200 per patient per year compared to typical primary care facilities.
We urge Maryland's members of Congress — who have long championed expanded health care — to make the case in Washington on behalf of those served by Maryland's community health centers.
Millions of Americans are leading healthier lives today, thanks to federal health care reform. Let's continue this forward progress by strengthening access to care in our communities for our friends, neighbors and family members.
H. Duane Taylor is CEO of the Mid-Atlantic Association of Community Health Centers; his email is email@example.com. The chief executives of seven Federally Qualified Health Centers operating in Maryland contributed to this op-ed: Allen J. Bennett, Park West Health System, Inc.; Paul Gleichauf, Baltimore Medical Systems; Richard Larison, Chase Brexton Health Care; Kevin Lindamood, Healthcare for the Homeless; Paula McLellan, Family Health Centers of Baltimore; Faye Royale-Larkins, Total Health Care, Inc.; and Susan B. Walter, Tri-State Community Health Center.