by Daily Inter Lake, Adrian Horton

A sea of red filled the Flathead Community Health Center conference room Tuesday morning, as staff, board members and patients gathered to express support for Montana’s community health centers. The demonstration, part of the nationwide #RedAlertforCHCs day of awareness, called on Congress to renew the Community Health Center Fund or risk losing health care access for thousands of Montanans.

The “Red Alert” day is a culmination of warnings from community health centers across the nation, including the Flathead, about the costs of inaction on the Community Health Center Fund. The fund, which provides the bulk of federal funding required to keep community health centers open, expired on Sept. 30, 2017.

Since then, short-term extensions have patchworked the fund until March; but if Congress doesn’t include the fund in its final budget – due for a vote on Thursday – community health centers would face shortages, layoffs and potential closures.

At the Flathead Community Health Center, participants looked to bring awareness to the health center community and their work locally. “The ‘Red Alert for CHCs’ is a nationwide effort for all the CHCs today just to wear red, get the word out, raise awareness about the populations that we serve and make sure that we’re still able to provide that critical access to care for people who don’t have health-care access,” said Jody White, the center’s executive director.

The local health center, like many across the country, provides primary care, dental care, and behavioral and mental health services to underserved and rural populations. Without renewed funding, the Flathead center is expected to lose $780,000, or about 15 percent of its annual budget. White previously told the Daily Inter Lake that the center would operate normally until July, but would be forced to make tough cutbacks after that date.

Over 106,000 Montanans receive primary care from the state’s 17 community health centers, according to the Montana Primary Care Association. Over half of those patients live under the federal poverty line. The association predicts that about 27,000 Montanans will lose access to primary health care if federal funding is not renewed.

Faced with these consequences, the issue has found some bipartisan support from Montana legislators in Washington.

Montana’s Democratic Sen. Jon Tester has co-sponsored the CHIME Act, which would renew federal funding for community health centers for five years. He held a press conference Monday on the steps of the Capitol to stress the need for a long-term solution.

“It is time for Congress to quit kicking the can down the road and provide community health centers with long-term certainty,” Tester said.

Both Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., have signed letters to Congress urging reauthorization of the Community Health Fund. Neither legislator has endorsed the CHIME Act.

White said she is “hopeful” that Congress will reach a solution, but stressed that “Red Alert” day goes beyond Thursday’s vote.

“This will be the two-year funding,” she said, “but it’s still important just to keep the awareness up because we’ll be right back in this same scenario again in two years.”