If anyone needs further evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside-down, take a good look at the three community health center organizations in the Yakima Valley.
Yakima Neighborhood Health Services, Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic and Community Health of Central Washington provide primary health care for more than half the county’s population in a time when health care needs are in the spotlight more so than at any point in our lifetimes.
Yet, they’re struggling for money.
A recent Herald-Republic story pointed out that these federally supported community health centers have lost sources of revenue despite being on the front lines of the coronavirus fight. With the suspension of nonemergency medical and dental services and reductions in face-to-face visits, the centers have resorted to layoffs, furloughs and budget shortfalls.
All three agencies — part of a network of 27 community health center organizations statewide — are weathering losses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, millions in some cases, despite a one-time infusion of federal dollars from the CARES Act to help them deal with COVID-19. All expressed gratitude for the CARES funding —
$3.8 million for Farm Workers Clinic, $2.1 million for Community Health, and just shy of $1 million for Neighborhood Health. But it remains an uphill battle.
More than half of the state’s community health centers were staring down the possibility of closure within months, according to an April study by the Washington Association for Community Health. The CARES Act has eased that threat, as have higher reimbursements for telehealth appointments and the gradual ease of restrictions on nonessential medical and dental care.
A big question now is how and when Congress will send more federal dollars toward the centers and what strings will be attached. The recent
$3 trillion HEROES Act, which passed the House by a narrow margin, earmarked $7.6 billion for the roughly 1,400 community health center organizations nationwide, recognizing the services they provide for more than 28 million underserved and low-income individuals and families in the U.S.
Not surprisingly, the bill is a magnet for political posturing as it contains a number of elements that arguably have little or nothing to do directly with COVID-19. The White House and Senate Republicans are essentially ignoring the act, objecting to, among other issues, funds earmarked for undocumented residents, vote-by-mail and the U.S. Postal Service. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called it a “totally unserious effort” to address the pandemic. Republicans also have indicated issues with timing, suggesting that the full effects of the CARES Act have yet to be measured.
Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, had this to say in a statement following his no vote on the HEROES Act: “This legislation was crafted behind closed doors by Democrat insiders without any input from minority members with different perspectives from across the country. This massive spending bill — the largest in history — will inflate our national debt with provisions that have nothing to do with the impacts of COVID-19, and it will not deliver the aid or relief that is most needed in getting America back up and running.”
Newhouse’s point is well taken, but at some point Washington, D.C., will need to take further action in the pandemic fight. And when negotiations between the House and the Senate conclude and the dust is settled, whatever gets sent to President Donald Trump’s desk desperately needs to include a healthy amount for community health centers, along with reasonable leeway as to how the centers can use the money. More than 100,000 residents of Yakima County rely on these centers, as do millions more across the country. They are an essential part of the “aid or relief that is most needed,” as Newhouse said.
Nowhere is that help needed more than here in the Yakima Valley, where COVID-19 numbers are much higher than in other parts of the state and where there are serious concerns about what the Valley’s health will look like should the virus strengthen and reemerge over the winter.
Community health centers are hurting badly as they seek to ease the hurts of thousands and thousands of our neighbors. Congress needs to come together, honor their work and offer generous support in its next relief package — hopefully soon.