Countdown to Sequestration: Cuts will Hurt Health Services for the Most Vulnerable

By Marisol Murphy-Ballantyne

With less than 24 hours until the sequester takes effect, the clock is ticking loudly. The National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) continues to urge Community Health Centers to let their Members of Congress know the effects of the sequester on the nation’s most vulnerable. The sequester is estimated to cut the services health centers provide to 900,000 patients and some health center sites may be forced to possibly close their doors.

Most health centers will not see an immediate loss of funds because of the timing of grant renewals, but in the near future it will have a negative impact at a time when the demand for affordable health care services already exceeds the supply. That demand is predicted to increase as coverage under Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act insurance exchanges are established.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) calculates that sequestration will require an annual reduction of roughly five percent for nondefense programs. However, with five months already gone in this fiscal year, most programs will only have seven months to achieve those cuts. The reality is that the seven month time limit puts reductions to programs at almost nine percent.

One Community Health Center bracing for the cuts is the Teche Action Clinic in rural Louisiana.  Teche’s main facility is located approximately 100 miles west of New Orleans. With eight locations, Teche has provided primary and preventative health care for over 35 years to patients across south Louisiana. Having just opened one clinic in a very isolated, rural area where 80 percent of the patients are uninsured, the sequester means a $100,000 budget cut.

“There is no way that I can continue to provide care with a business model that doesn’t account for that hole in my budget,” said Gary Wiltz, MD, the CEO at the Teche Action Center health center in rural Franklin, LA, and NACHC’s Board Chair Elect.  “We are trying to find ways to adjust and to prepare ourselves but the frank reality is there is no fluff in our budgets. We have expanded our services and are preparing to increase access for those who are going without care right now and this sequestration is going to be a tremendous blow to our efforts to try to continue that service.”

Dr. Wiltz says his patients fear the budget cuts too.  The clinic is providing access and they are reaching out to those who in the past may not have been able to receive care but are now able to receive the services they need to control diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure.  He says his patients are asking what sequestration means to them and if their payments are going to increase, or they are going to lose service altogether.

“I can tell you it’s very frustrating and very scary. I can see it in the eyes of our patients and I can hear it in their voices. A couple this morning was asking me how it’s going to impact them, are they going to have to pay more money. At the same time the wife was asking me if I knew anybody who would like to buy pies because she was selling pies to supplement her income,” recounted Dr. Wiltz. “These are real people who are frustrated that Congress has put us in a position where we may be faced with closing centers we just opened in the last few years.”

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