OCEAN PARK — About 2,400 people might lose access to healthcare on the Peninsula if Congress can’t come through with cash for community health centers this week.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell met with patients and officials at the North Beach Clinic in Ocean Park on Thursday to talk about the money that’s been held up in federal budget negotiations.

“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 the 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,” North Beach patient Sandra Thames said.

She was one of about half a dozen patients who were invited to share their stories during the Feb. 1 meeting with Cantwell and Peninsula healthcare providers.

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 told the senator.

“It’s a boon to this area,” said John Fugitt, who sees a nurse practitioner at North Beach.

The clinic is among 10,400 federally qualified medical centers nationwide that might be shut down if Congress doesn’t come through with federal dollars fast. They serve more than 27 million patients clinics across the country, according to the National Association of Community Health Centers.

Cantwell, a Democrat from Edmonds, said Republicans are using the money for community 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 take a $2 million hit if the money doesn’t come through, Coffee, the COO, said. It would likely mean layoffs and the closure of smaller, rural clinics. The North Beach clinic has 11 employees who could lose their jobs if Congress doesn’t stop bickering over the budget soon.

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.

If the clinic closes, many people would have to drive long distances for medical care.

Brenda Bliss, a patient who’s fighting cancer, said her health insurance doesn’t cover Oregon so providers across the river wouldn’t be an option for her.

“It’d be devastating to lose this place,” she said.

It’d also be tough for people because they’d have to see new providers who don’t know them or their medical history, patient David Fischer said.

After listening to the group of about a dozen at the North Beach Clinic, Cantwell said, she was ready to go back to Washington, D.C. and fight.

“You’re putting community in community health care,” she said. “We need to tell this story nationally.”

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