Community health centers face ACA dilemma

Programs expect millions of new patients but not enough funding to keep them
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Although community health centers expect to sign up millions of newly insured patients under healthcare reform, scant funding will leave them scrambling to keep the new patients, Reuters reports.

Community health centers have been struggling for years to attend to uninsured and poor patients, but once the Affordable Care Act takes full effect on Jan. 1, 2014, the 1,200 federal-funded centers plan to help enroll as many as 10 million newly insured individuals within a year.  

The problem is they don't have enough funding to improve their services and level of care to keep the new patients, according to Reuters. And community health center executives fear that in time the new patients will seek better services at physician offices or hospitals.

So far community health centers have only received $3 billion of the $11 billion funds promised under the Affordable Care Act, according to Reuters. The financial situation became dire in March when the centers were hit with a 5 percent cut under the government sequestration, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser states the cuts will impact the centers' ability to serve patients and estimates they will treat 900,000 fewer patients and accommodate 3 million fewer visits this year.

Some relief may be on the way, however. Last week, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced $150 million in grant awards to 1,159 health centers to enroll uninsured Americans in new health exchanges. Sebelius said the funds would enable community health centers to hire 2,900 outreach and eligibility assistant workers to help the uninsured enroll into affordable health coverage options.

And that's just what the community health centers that fall under the umbrella of the Erlanger Health System in Chattanooga, Tenn., Intend to do, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

"We really have to mount a community education initiative so people understand it," Joe Winick, senior vice president of planning at Erlanger Health System, and director of its three community health centers, told the Times Free Press.

Winick plans to form a steering committee made up of community leaders, officials from all three hospitals in town and private practices to figure out how to maximize the number of people who can help with the enrollment process. Winick said he will hire contractors to help with the effort, but also will count on volunteer support, comparing the work to voter registration, the Times Free Press reported.

To learn more:
- here's the Reuters article
- read the Chattanooga Times Free Press article
- check out the Kaiser Family Foundation report (.pdf)

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