The centers offer quality health, education, social and community services to all patients regardless of their financial situation.

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  • Teresa Dabney is CEO of Community Health of East Tennessee, serving Campbell and surrounding counties east of the Appalachian Mountains.

The economic downturn from the coronavirus pandemic has left many Americans unable to afford medical insurance, large co-payments or deductibles. Fortunately, federally-funded community health centers provide a safety net for those unable to pay medical costs. The centers offer quality health, education, social and community services to all patients regardless of their financial situation and often exist as the only primary-care option in remote areas. Services they provide, such as sliding-scale payment plans, one-on-one assistance with free prescription drug programs, food banks and clothing closets, help families facing hard times.

Community health centers serve 30 million patients nationwide, and with so many Americans losing jobs and income, that number will most likely rise. Since April, Community Health of East Tennessee, which serves Campbell and surrounding counties, has seen on average a 40% increase per month in new patients needing assistance to cover medical costs.

Christ Community Health Center holds drive-through coronavirus testing on Frayser Boulevard, in Memphis, Tenn., on Saturday, April 25, 2020. (Photo: Ariel Cobbert/ The Commercial Appeal)

The health centers have been financially affected by the coronavirus pandemic as well. Clinics have scheduled fewer routine appointments, causing revenue to go down, and some in regions hit hard by COVID-19 are struggling under financial strain. The centers need immediate emergency funding to adapt to the ongoing pandemic and long-term funding to expand capacity, services and coverage areas to care for increasing numbers of patients affected by the economic downturn.

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Congress, however, has been slow to pass ample emergency funding or reauthorize long-term funding that will give community health centers the financial security to plan for the current and future health care needs of their patients. The inaction of Congress is putting millions of vulnerable Americans, including nearly 220,000 Tennesseans (and counting), at risk.

Christ Community Health Center holds drive-through coronavirus testing on Frayser Boulevard, in Memphis, Tenn., on Saturday, April 25, 2020. (Photo: Ariel Cobbert/ The Commercial Appeal)

Without predictable and stable funding, Community Health of East Tennessee could become too stretched financially to hire the additional physicians and staff needed to accommodate more patients or retain specialized physicians willing to work on a sliding-payment scale. We would eventually need to scale back on outreach efforts and specialty programs, such as monitoring patients with ongoing chronic diseases or providing safe centers for domestic violence victims. Our new, one-of-a-kind mobile dental clinic would close, making basic dental care once again a hundred miles away for many Campbell County residents.

If Congressional funding doesn’t come through at all, then many of the centers would close altogether. What primary care options would be left for Americans lacking sufficient medical insurance or living in remote areas? The answer, I’m afraid, is none.

Congress must pass $7.6 billion in emergency funding over the next six months and an additional $69.7 billion over five years to stabilize community health center funding for other operational needs. Lawmakers must act now so the centers can support additional patients as well as keep our full range of quality services for those already under our care.

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Tennesseans making daily sacrifices to make ends meet should not forgo essential health care to put food on the table for their children. Thankfully, community health centers exist so that no one is forced to make those financial decisions during difficult times. Our purpose and mission are to provide hope of getting help where previously there has been despair. With Congress’ help, the centers will have stable funding to provide that hope now and in the future.

Teresa Dabney is CEO of Community Health of East Tennessee, serving Campbell and surrounding counties east of the Appalachian Mountains.  

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