By Patrick McArdle, Staff Writer
BENNINGTON - Bennington County is one of only two counties in Vermont that doesn't have a federally qualified health center, but Sen. Bernard Sanders is scheduled to be at the Bennington Free Health Clinic today to look for ways to change that.
Sanders has been an advocate for the expansion of the health centers, which provide primary health care services for people regardless of their ability to pay, in Vermont.
"Six years ago, when I first got involved with this, there were two federally qualified health centers in Vermont. Now there's one in Rutland, one that just opened in Brattleboro. Over the last six years, we've made real progress and now there are only two regions of the state that don't have health centers — Addison and Bennington," Sanders said on Monday.
There are several features of the health centers that make them important, Sanders said.
Improving the health of Vermonters is an obvious asset, but they're also a cost-savings measure.
Sanders said that an estimated 60 million Americans don't have a primary-care physician. Often, when those people get sick, they avoid going to see a doctor until their condition becomes serious or they visit a hospital emergency room.
Either option is more expensive than the preventive medical care that can be practiced by regular visits to a primary-care doctor.
A similar philosophy was at work when Sanders arranged funding for a dental health clinic at Molly Stark School in Bennington in 2005.
Sanders said Vermonters with access to a health center can get affordable prenatal care, dental care, mental health care, cancer screenings and prescription drugs.
According to Sanders, this is a good time to begin discussions about bringing a health center to Bennington County because the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes funding for the centers. Earlier this year, Springfield Hospital received $1.3 million to open the eighth health center in Vermont.
Sanders' office estimates that 100,000 Vermont residents will get their primary health care from the centers that serve patients who have no insurance as well as those covered by private insurance, Medicaid and Medicare.
According to Sanders, a bill has been introduced that will quadruple the amount of funding for health centers in the future.
Sanders said he hopes anyone in Bennington County who is interested in health care access will be at the Bennington Free Clinic at 5 p.m. today to join the discussion. He said he expects to discuss ways to bring a health clinic to the area and to explain the many benefits he believes it will provide.
At 4:15 p.m. today, Sanders is scheduled to be at Molly Stark School, where he will announce federal funding for both the school and Bennington's senior citizens' center.