Tester says Senate budget deal funds Montana’s community health centers

by Helena Independent Record, Holly Michels

Funding for Montana’s 17 community health centers is included in a budget deal reached in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, and while one of Montana’s U.S. senators is optimistic about the deal’s passage, he’s also calling for a longer-term solution.

The Senate reached a budget deal a day after the House passed its own version of a bill to fund the government and avoid another shutdown. The last short-term funding bill passed in January expires Thursday.

“It now appears we are close to the finish line,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Wednesday afternoon from Washington, D.C., in a call with reporters.

Funding for community health centers, which in the past had been reliably reauthorized, was turned into a political pawn in September when Congress failed to reauthorize it.

In Montana, the annual budget for the state’s community health centers was about $35.5 million for last fiscal year. When funding expired, centers around Montana were thrown into a state of uncertainty as employees wondered about the security of their jobs, patients worried about their access to health care and centers were unable to plan ahead for projects, such as the opening of a new clinic by Riverstone Health Center in Billings.

The deal struck in the Senate on Wednesday includes about $7 billion in funding over two years, what Tester called an increase from previous funding levels. The deal also includes an additional four years of funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, on top of a six-year extension the House approved earlier in the week.

Tester was optimistic about what he called the bipartisan compromise’s chances; by late Wednesday afternoon the Senate had not voted on it and signs of possible trouble arose in the House.

The New York Times reported Wednesday that House Majority Leader Paul Ryan, R-Wis., urged his caucus to vote for the deal. However, the Times reported, it was far less popular with more conservative Republicans and some Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Pelosi said she would not support a budget compromise that did not come with a discussion on legislation over immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents, known as Dreamers. Pelosi on Wednesday engaged in what The Washington Post called the “longest-continuous speech in House history” on the issue.

Tester remained cautiously optimistic.

“You’re always concerned until you can get the president’s signature on it, but I will say this: The Senate oftentimes leads on issues like this,” Tester said. “I think in the end if we can show a good vote here in the Senate … I think the politics are going to go away and it’ll move forward.”

Cindy Smith, chief executive officer of Bullhook Community Health Center in Havre, said the lack of certainty since funding ran out in September has made things difficult.

“These past 130-some days have certainly been a challenge for us,” Smith said Wednesday. “The uncertainty in funding is really hard for our 70 employees and 5,000 patients that really look to us for health care.”

Smith said with the increase in funding she hopes to be able to expand what the center offers, including medically-assisted treatment for opioid addiction.

Jody White, executive director of Flathead Community Health Center, said she was happy to hear funding for the National Health Service Corps is also included in the deal. The corps is a 40-year-old program that helps participants who work at approved sites including community health centers repay their college loans and helps Montana’s centers with hiring and keeping medical care providers

Tester called the two-year funding for community health centers a “good start,” but said “there’s still much more that needs to be done.”

He wants to see the Community Health Investment, Modernization and Excellence Act, or CHIME Act, brought to the Senate floor for a vote. The act would extend funding for the Community Health Center Fund for an additional five years

Tester said a bipartisan group of 19 senators, including him and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., support the act.

Tester said he believes the CHIME Act would pass the House and the Senate.

“So why don’t we get it rolling?” he said. “There’s no need in playing politics with this stuff. Really two years isn’t all that long and five years is much better.”

Tester on Wednesday also derided the amount of time it took to reach this point.

“(Funding) expired 131 days ago, and since then Congress has passed four short-term budgets,” Tester said.

He said he voted against a short-term budget bill in January that funded the government until Thursday and lifted a three-day shutdown.

Tester was the only red-state Democrat to vote against the measure that reopened the government, something candidates in the crowded Republican primary against him have capitalized on.

He called the previous stop-gap measure a bad deal.

“I’ve also opposed a bad short-term budget that didn’t include community health care funding,” he said.