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How one Detroit community health center has been coping with budget uncertainty

Feb 8, 2018

Dr. Felix Valbuena is CEO of the Community Health and Social Services Center (CHASS) in Southwest Detroit. It’s one of 45 community health centers in Michigan that provide care to about 700,000 people.

Roughly 27 million Americans – largely located in low-income urban or rural areas – rely on community health centers for medical, dental, and mental health care. But it’s been 129 days since Congress let funding run out for community health centers. Valbuena, along with other health administrators, is nervously waiting to see whether Congress passes funding for the program in the ongoing budget negotiations.

Valbuena addressed Congress along with other administrators in Washington Tuesday.

On CHASS

According to Valbuena, CHASS serves 12,000 patients each year from its center in Southwest Detroit. The center provides comprehensive health and wellness services ranging from pediatric care to prenatal, dental, pharmacy, and geriatric services. Valbuena says 30 percent of the center’s funding comes from the federal government. Roughly 55 percent of the CHASS's patients are uninsured.

On the urgency of federal funding

“The message yesterday when we were in Washington was to urgently pass the much-needed funding that our 1,400 organizations across the country need” Valbuena says. “Because there’s going to be 9 million patients that are going to be without care if something isn’t done very, very soon. The urgency was the most important thing that we took to them because we’re at a loss now and we’ve put hiring freezes [in place], and there’s centers that are already laying people off. It’s a dire situation, and we’re very, very concerned and worried that people are going to lose care.”

Overall, Valbuena says, there are 27 million Americans that rely on health centers. Health administrators estimate that a loss of federal funding would affect roughly 9 million patients nationwide.  

On the response

Valbuena says he's fortunate the community health center program has been “blessed” with bipartisan support over the years. But recently he feels the stress of being overlooked.

“Because of other – to Congress – more pressing issues, we’ve kind of been put on the back burner,” he says.

But he says he’s gotten reassurance from members of Congress, such as Republican representative Elise Stefanik from New York, who held a press conference in front of the Capitol featuring senators and representatives from both parties who stressed the importance of securing funds for the program.

“They’re talking about it in committees, and they’re talking about it with their colleagues,” Valbuena says. “You know, they can’t promise, but they said they were going to get this done for us.”

On CHASS today

Valbuena says CHASS has a hiring freeze in place right now, with contingency plans to cut services to patients, though at this point they have not cut services yet.

“Roughly 2,500 patients that we serve would not get care if this funding doesn’t go through, so we’re still sitting on pins and needles and have this plan in place that we’ve already started to act on that we’ll have to continue to act on if funding isn’t approved,” he says.

He says the center has the demand and need for more staff and services, but the uncertainty in funding is halting expansion.

“We have long waiting times, and there are staff that we’re waiting to hire, but I have not hired them because of the fact that it’s uncertain if we’re going to have money to be able to pay them,” he says.

Much of Valbuena’s staff members are members of the Southwest Detroit community as well.

“We get these reassurances, but until we actually see things are passed to the president for signature and he signs, there’s tons of anxiety in the center currently,” Valbuena says. 

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