Congress has passed a $483 billion package that promises to bring some relief to providers and boost testing on the frontlines of COVID-19. Even as this package nears the President’s signature, questions are being raised about the amount of federal support Community Health Centers will actually receive in their fight against COVID-19.
There are concerns that the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund, signed into law as part of the CARES Act in late March, may fall well short of helping the populations who need it most in medically underserved areas, warns the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC). Health centers serve nearly 30 million patients nationwide and were recently singled out by President Trump for their work in testing and caring for populations affected by the virus. However, health centers are only eligible for a small portion of the funds expected to be rolled out from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) this week.
CARES Act funding was targeted to reduce harm across the entire health care system due to the stoppage of non-emergent medical and dental procedures and address the economic impact on providers bearing the additional expense of caring for COVID-19 patients. However, the formula used to disburse the $100 billion funds is largely out of reach for health centers serving the populations who are disproportionately suffering higher rates of illness and mortality from the virus.
“Community Health Centers are uniquely positioned to address the health disparities that have become glaringly evident during this pandemic,” said Tom Van Coverden, President and CEO of NACHC. “These disparities are overwhelmingly affecting people who live in poverty, lack adequate housing or food — and include many in our African American, Latino, and Asian communities. The only way to prevent the further spread of COVID-19 in these communities is to adequately, and immediately, fund the providers who are already on the battleground testing them and caring for them. Even more testing will be needed in the coming weeks and months.”
Van Coverden noted that HHS is designating half of the $100 billion based on each provider’s share of total patient revenue in 2018. This method largely penalizes the cost-effective approach of health centers, which care for 30 million people across the country, including many uninsured and underinsured patients, but account for only around 0.6 percent of patient revenue nationally. Almost half of the nation’s health centers are located in rural areas that include COVID-19 hot zones, but they will largely be ineligible for the $10 billion set aside for providers in COVID-19 hotspots and the $10 billion for rural providers. Health centers have also been left off the list of provider groups that care for Medicaid patients and were targeted for additional funding.
“Health centers are already paying a heavy price in this pandemic,” said Van Coverden. “So far, over 1380 health center workers have tested positive for the virus. They include doctors, nurses and frontline staff who are working tirelessly to reduce the spread and the burden on our nation’s hospitals. We are not asking for a blank check in this fight, but their sacrifice and hard work should not get lost in the fine print when it comes to dividing the resources. More needs to be done to help these vital Community Health Center safety net providers.”