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Local community health centers worry about funding

Congress missed the deadline earlier this week to re-authorize a funding bill for Community Health Centers. Those centers help serve patients who cannot afford coverage. If legislation isn’t passed soon, it could start impacting centers by the start of next year (Photo: WSET)

LYNCHBURG, Va. (WSET) -- Millions of low-income patients could be at risk of losing health care if Congress doesn’t act quickly.

“Around 3,000 of our patients are either under-served or are working poor,” Randy Pirtle, incoming CEO of Blue Ridge Medical Center said. “Those are the people that would be mostly affected.”

Congress missed the deadline earlier this week to re-authorize a funding bill for Community Health Centers. Those centers help serve patients who cannot afford coverage. If legislation isn’t passed soon, it could start impacting centers by the start of next year.

“It puts at risk the patients,” Pirtle said.

Some of the effects are already trickling down just in the last week.

“It causes a lot of unnecessary anxiety among the staff,” Pirtle said. “We have lost some very highly valued employees because of concerns for their livelihood.”

Those at Blue Ridge Medical Center aren't the only ones concerned. Mehgan McCrickard is the chief operating officer at Johnston Medical Center. She says about 15 percent of her patients are at risk.

“Even though it hasn’t affected direct funding, it’s already started to affected health centers,” McCrickard said. “A lot of health centers aren’t able to secure funding from other sources, bank loans if they are looking to expand their service line or remodel facilities or purchase facilities.”

Pirtle says this could take a toll on about a third of his patients.

“I hope for a lot better from congress,” Pirtle said. “I think there is reason to be very disappointed.”

Congressman Morgan Griffith, who is a member of the Committee overseeing a bill for funding, said the bill didn’t meet the deadline because of disagreement about the funding plan, but says it has now passed through committee and will next head to the house floor.

“I am confident it will pass through the house floor and the senate,” Griffith said, adding that he expects it to happen in the next month.

Other local congress members say there is bipartisan support legislation passed:

“It's time for Republican leadership to extend the children's health insurance program. Virginia families depend on CHIP to help afford critical medical care and services for their kids. We can't delay any longer," Senator Tim Kaine

"I have long been an advocate for Community Health Centers and the affordable health care options they provide at facilities like Johnson Health Center, New Horizons, and Blue Ridge Medical Center. Just this week, a House committee advanced a bill to extend funding for Community Health Centers, and I have also signed on in support of the CHIME Act, which would also extend funding for these facilities. Community Health Centers provide primary care for more than 27 million people. Ensuring they have the resources needed to continue serving families is a priority, and I hope to see legislation come before the full House soon," Congressman Rob Goodlatte said.

“Community health centers are a vital piece of the health care system, especially in rural and medically underserved areas. These centers have always had strong bipartisan support from Congress, and still do. The proof is a letter I signed last month along with 60 other senators – both Republicans and Democrats – urging Senate leaders to act before the CHCF program runs out of funding later this year. I am confident that funding for these community health centers will be maintained without an interruption in services," Senator Mark Warner said.

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