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As the directors of four of Montana’s largest community health centers, we are writing today to urge Congress to reauthorize the federal funding that keeps the doors of primary care community health centers across the state open and welcome to all.

The Community Health Center Program is financed through a combination of discretionary funding passed by Congress in the annual appropriation process, and mandatory funding made available via the Community Health Center Fund. Congress went over the community health center “fiscal cliff” on Sept. 30 when it did not pass the CHC multi-year funding bill nor did it pass a federal budget.

While we are not panicking, the situation becomes more urgent with every stopgap Continuing Resolution. Without long-term stable funding, Community Health Centers are put in the precarious position of relying on month-to-month extensions and potentially devastating impacts to the provider loan repayment program that helps us staff our health centers.

In Billings, Bridger, Joliet, and Worden, RiverStone Health provides primary healthcare – including medical, dental, behavioral health, pharmacy, and supportive services – to over 15,000 individuals. RiverStone Health employs 125 CHC staff members and generates over $25 million in economic activity annually for our community.

Similarly, health centers based in Butte, Livingston / Bozeman, Missoula and 10 other communities across Montana reach over 110,000 patients every year through 422,559 patient visits. Community health centers deliver care ranging from flu shots to well-child visits to preventive dental to chronic care management in over 80 locations across our state through a network of satellite sites and partnerships. Throughout the state, CHCs provide care to anyone in need, including the more than 20% of our patients who are uninsured. The federal funding at stake allows us to provide sliding fee discounts to every low-income patient who walks through our doors.

Health centers are small businesses and must be able to budget and plan for ongoing and future needs. We cannot wait until the last minute to know whether funding will be there. Without sustainable and predictable funding, health centers will continue to experience uncertainty that impacts our ability to respond to the changing health care needs of the communities we serve.

Health centers are working to meet unprecedented demand for services, including substance use and behavioral health treatment, critically needed dental services, improved access to care for veterans, and responding to public health crises. This demand has led to health centers across Montana developing new services and expanding to new locations to ensure access to the right care at the right time in the right place. Our ability to plan for the future and consider opportunities to expand and meet the needs of our communities becomes very challenging in an environment that has so much financial uncertainty

Community Health Centers are an essential part of America’s health care system and we have a proven record of success that includes producing $24 billion in annual health system savings (including tens of millions in Montana) because we reduce unnecessary hospitalizations and visits to the emergency room through prevention, treatment, and providing a medical home to individuals with chronic conditions.

Health centers continue to reach beyond the walls of conventional medicine to prevent illness and promote wellness, while addressing the social factors that influence poor health, such as lack of nutrition, mental illness, homelessness and opioid addiction. Our long record of success in innovating, lowering health care costs, and reducing the burden of chronic disease is a testament to our ability to provide high quality comprehensive primary care to underserved populations.

We are a successful network of providers with thousands of patients counting on us. We need Congress to act and provide stable, long-term funding that ensures continuous access to care for our patients.

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John Felton leads RiverStone Health in Billings, Jennifer Malone Southwest Montana Community Health Center,  Lander Cooney Community Health Partners and Laurie Francis leads Partnership Health Center.

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