OCEAN PARK — People will continue to have more affordable access to healthcare on the Peninsula now that Congress has approved a deal on the budget.
After a short federal government shutdown, President Trump on Friday signed the agreement that raises caps on domestic and military spending by a total of about $300 billion over the next two years and increases the debt limit. The budget includes $3.8 billion for community health centers in 2018 and $4 billion in 2019.
The money will allow the North Beach Clinic in Ocean Park to keep its doors open. During a meeting on Feb. 1, officials told U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell it might have to close if federal dollars didn’t come through fast.
“It breaks my heart to say if we lose this funding, this clinic would be the first to close,” said Jim Coffee, chief operating officer for Cowlitz Family Health Center network.
The nonprofit serves about 25,000 patients at clinics in Pacific, Wahkiakum and Cowlitz counties, including 2,400 at North Beach. People can get primary and preventative medical care, family planning, behavioral health and dental services in Ocean Park, regardless of their insurance coverage and ability to pay.
“This clinic has been an absolute Godsend for this community,” patient Sandra Thames said.
She was one of about half a dozen patients who were invited to share their stories during the meeting with Cantwell and Peninsula healthcare providers in Ocean Park earlier this month.
Rocky Tutel described the challenges he and his wife faced with getting treatment and paying for it after he was diagnosed with kidney failure 11 years ago. He said they were unable to work during the seven years he spent on dialysis, waiting for a transplant.
“I get a little emotional about this sometimes,” he said. “It’s been really tough to make it.”
Many people rely on the clinic because it offers sliding-scale fees. That makes it possible for patients to access medical treatment in rural areas such as the Peninsula, where unemployment is high, average incomes are low and there’s a wide disparity between the “haves and have nots,” Willapa Behavioral Health Chief Executive Officer Adam Marquis said.
The North Beach Clinic’s location on Pacific Highway also works for those who use public transportation to get to and from appointments, patient Carmen Maestas said.
“It’s a boon to this area,” John Fugitt, who sees a nurse practitioner at North Beach, told the senator.
The clinic is among 10,400 federally qualified medical centers that rely on federal dollars. They serve more than 27 million patients at clinics across the country, according to the National Association of Community Health Centers.
Cantwell, a Democrat from Edmonds, said Republicans were using the money for the health centers as a pawn in the budget debate. The federal dollars were expected to be approved when Congress reauthorized money for CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, as part of a deal to avoid a government shutdown in January. However, it was not included in the agreement to continue the program that covers 9 million kids nationwide for the next six years.
“We need to stop holding healthcare hostage,” she said. “Clinics should have certainty because it impacts people’s lives.”
The Family Health Center network’s annual budget of about $23 million would have taken a $2 million hit if the money hadn’t been approved, Coffee, the COO, said. It was facing layoffs and the closure of smaller, rural clinics. The North Beach clinic has 11 employees.
Katherine Lindley, a nurse practitioner at North Beach, said without the nonprofit clinic, many patients would have to rely on emergency rooms. That makes it tough for them to get screenings and preventative care. It also often causes people to delay treatment, which can have serious, sometimes deadly consequences.
“We’re the first line of defense for a lot of people,” Lindley said.
She recently diagnosed a woman who did not have health insurance with lymphoma. But, she said, the clinic staff made sure her patient got treatment.
David Fischer, another of Lindley’s patients, said he’s comfortable going to the clinic because the staff knows him and his medical history. Without it, he and many other Peninsula residents would have to drive long distances to see new providers.
“It’d be devastating to lose this place,” Brenda Bliss, who’s fighting cancer, said.
After listening to the group, Cantwell said, she was ready to go back to Washington, D.C. and fight for rural medical centers.
“You’re putting community in community health care,” she said. “We need to tell this story nationally.”
The Senate approved the budget measure by a 71 to 28 vote shortly before 2 a.m. on Friday. The House followed suit around 5:30 a.m., passing it by 240 to 186.