With razor-thin margins and Congress failing to reauthorize their funding, many nonprofit community health centers face running out of money in May.
By Phil McCausland
The clinician at International Community Health Services in Seattle took his time before entering the checkup room. He tried not to think about the clinic’s dwindling resources or the challenges of getting coronavirus testing kits as he soaped and scrubbed his hands pink, wrapped a heavy-duty mask around his face and snapped on disposable rubber gloves and a pair of goggles.
The full outfit is necessary every time he meets patients — largely low-income Asian Americans and immigrants who have Medicaid or no insurance at all — even as the clinic’s orders for medical supplies come in short and disinfectant levels run low.
Administrators reminded all the nurses and doctors to be careful, especially after the clinic admitted their first confirmed coronavirus case: a patient who arrived from a nearby nursing home, the Life Care Center of Kirkland, where several residents and workers have fallen ill.
Once the clinician entered the room, he took down his patient’s medical history, noted whom they may have come in contact with and weighed whether he would be allowed to administer one of the clinic’s few coronavirus tests — all while assuaging his patient’s fears after traveling to Vietnam at the start of a pandemic.
Time and resources at nonprofit community health centers, which serve approximately 29 million low-income Americans across 1,400 facilities like this one, are being stretched to their breaking point amid the coronavirus outbreak even as they could prove essential in combating its spread, Dr. Asqual Getaneh, the center’s medical director, said.
Their ability could be further handicapped very soon: Federal funding that accounts for 70 percent of these nonprofit health centers’ budgets will run out in May.
“The unknown is an added stress for everyone,” Getaneh said, who noted their pharmacies are running short on essential medications. “There’s also stress associated with whether or not we have the supplies to protect ourselves and take care of patients who are symptomatic. We’re told this is the tip of the iceberg for this epidemic, so we’re seeing a lot of people coming in and trying to figure out how best to deliver care.”
The front lines of a health crisis
That is a challenge for these nonprofit health centers, which were first funded by the federal government more than 50 years ago as part of the “War on Poverty.” These clinics located in every state, from dense urban centers to rural towns and communities, have served a vital role in combating national emergencies such as the opioid crisis and the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
The trouble is they don’t know how long they can hang on, which would inhibit efforts to stymie the spread of the disease.