In Times of Epic Crisis Advocacy is Still the Answer for CHCs
By Rich Napolitano
Senior Vice President, External Relations
Chief Marketing & Development Officer
I am astonished right now. It appears obvious that we weren’t prepared for this unimaginable and unprecedented pandemic. We have lacked leadership in tackling this head on from the moment we first learned about it. Of course, it was coming to the United States. Of course, it was going to challenge our healthcare system, supposedly the best one in the world, with the most resources, right? And if that is the case, why weren’t we ready? Why still, aren’t we ready?
So here’s where I am going when it comes to our nation’s healthcare system and doing the right thing – right now – at this moment. To be ready for the long haul – relief for CHCs during this crisis and stability for after this crisis.
I start by asking, why are healthcare organizations like Community Health Centers having to furlough staff? Why are we waiting for Congress to put as much support forward as possible, and to reauthorize long term funding for Community Health Centers? Furthermore, why aren’t we doing the same for Teaching Health Centers or the National Service Corps? Forget the fact that it just doesn’t make sense in so-called normal times but definitely not now in this time of crisis in the United States. Especially when some called this a hoax not too long ago.
Congress must act now. Community Health Centers, for many, are the first line of defense in getting the healthcare they need. Community Health Centers must be included in the next stimulus. It is not just relief during the current crisis that is needed. It is also being on a solid foundation coming out of the crisis with long term funding. That’s what our Health Centers, and our patients, need.
Although we applaud Congress for moving quickly to support frontline providers like Community Health Centers, the $1.32 billion in funding – $1.9 billion less than the $3.2 billion requested — will not be sufficient to sustain Health Center capacity if the pandemic continues at its current pace for more than a few months. The numbers of patients infected by the virus will continue to increase. We will be working with Congress immediately to request additional emergency funding that is needed now – so why not act now?
John Silva, President and CEO of Greater Lawrence Family Health Center (GLFHC), has been part of the Health Center Movement for over 40 years and has seen it all, but nothing like this unimaginable pandemic. After receiving the supplemental funding from the Third Stimulus Package he said, “In the midst of this unprecedented public health crisis, Health Centers are facing multiple challenges as we all continue to provide healthcare to our patients and our communities while facing an unplanned and potentially devastating financial strain to our organizations. Greater Lawrence Family Health Center appreciates this emergency supplemental funding from the Department of Health and Human Services as a result of the most recent stimulus package. We thank our legislative delegation for their continued support and leadership as they advocate for our Health Center and most importantly our staff and patients in the next stimulus bill.”
I am fortunate to live in a state like Massachusetts, one of the birthplaces of the Community Health Center movement more than 50 years ago and work at GLFHC. With over 61,000 patients we are also one of the largest employers in our region. I know we can count on our entire delegation to push for the right thing. In my congressional district, Congresswoman Lori Trahan and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey are always there to help and push the Health Center movement across the aisle for bipartisan support. But, we need more.
As Chuck Jones, CEO of Harbor Health Services commented in a recent NY Times article, “We are expecting there will be more people seeking our services at the same time we’re not able to keep all our staff on hand; it is nonsensical that in the biggest health care crisis our country has ever faced, organizations like ours are being forced to furlough people we will need.” Recently Harbor Health was forced to furlough 160 members of their workforce. We need to avoid this situation when it comes to our healthcare workforce.
What can we do right now? Advocacy. Grassroots Advocacy across the country in support of our nations Community Health Centers.
We need more advocacy and outreach with ALL of our federal delegations – from every state. In some states we are preaching to the proverbial choir. In others however, there is work to be done. This means we have to unify Congress and the Senate and continue to insist on bipartisan support and leadership across the board. It is not happening quick enough and the sense of urgency needs to be heightened so everyone will listen. In the past, grassroots advocacy has been the answer in getting our message heard – there should be no difference now. Especially now.
The National Association of Community Health Centers reports that Community Health Centers across this country are approaching the 30 million patients mark. That is a very significant number. One out of every 11 people in our country will receive their primary healthcare from a Community Health Center and that number is predicted to grow over the next 10 years.
Without a substantial and immediate increase in emergency funding, the community health center network won’t survive two months, much less after the pandemic subsides. Funding for Health Centers in the stimulus package will at best help Health Centers for weeks — not months — let alone to endure and recover in a way that we can provide care to all of the people who rely on us. Not just our long-term patients, but those who will be newly unemployed and uninsured as a result of this crisis.
There is even more reason for a long-term fix and reauthorization of funding. Our underserved communities will be made even more vulnerable: Lower-income communities are disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. If health centers are allowed to fail, these communities will assume even greater risk. Not only will they lose ground on broad health gains, they will be left even more exposed during the probable second wave of the virus.
Finally, we can’t go back if we want to maintain the results-driven primary care network that we’ve built with so much bi-partisan support over the last half century. We are going to have to step up with more effort and vigor to save it. We cannot go back to soaring infant mortality rates, declining immunizations, and undue suffering and death in communities that have come so far despite every barrier imaginable to improved health and well-being. While so much of that progress being driven by long-term federal investment in local Community Health Centers.
The time to ACT is now. Advocacy efforts in all states must be focused on sufficient and significant increases and an agreement on long-term funding in the next stimulus package for Health Centers to maintain the level of care our patients are expecting and deserve. Health Centers will continue to save the healthcare system, but not without long-term funding reauthorization beyond just November of 2020. Becoming a Health Center Advocate is simple – ask me how – we need you, because this epic crisis requires an epic response in advocacy – let’s do it now!
Rich Napolitano is Senior Vice President of External Relations at Greater Lawrence Family Health Center: More than 62,000 patients depend on GLFHC for their primary health care needs at locations in Lawrence, Methuen and Haverhill. GLFHC is also home to the Lawrence Family Medicine Residency program, the nation’s first-ever health center owned Teaching Health Center program.
*Additional information was provided by Kerin O’Toole, Vice President of Public Affairs for the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers.