Release: Health Care Gets Big Boost in Economic Recovery Bill

WASHINGTON, February 17 –Support for community health centers will double and funds for training doctors, nurses and other health care professionals will nearly triple under economic recovery legislation President Barack Obama will sign today.

“This is one of the most significant steps forward that we have seen in decades in addressing the primary health care crisis in our country,” said Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

At Sanders’ urging, the plan invests an extra $2 billion in Federally Qualified Health Centers to expand the program that provides affordable primary care, dental care, mental health services and low-cost prescription drugs. A cost-effective alternative to hospital emergency rooms, community health centers offer basic services like prenatal care, childhood immunizations and cancer screenings. Open to everyone, the centers care for patients covered by Medicaid, Medicare and private insurance as well as those who have no insurance.

The added funds in the stimulus bill are on top of a $2 billion annual budget for the 1,100 community health centers that now serve 18 million people nationwide.  Another 56 million Americans, however, live in areas with inadequate access to a doctor or dentist.  Applications by hundreds of additional centers have not been funded because of budget shortfalls.

The bill Obama signed includes $1.5 billion for health center construction, renovation and equipment purchases. Another $500 million is allotted for health center operations, including new sites, increased services and supplemental payments to accommodate growing numbers of uninsured patients.

At a time when the United States faces a major crisis in terms of an inadequate number of primary health care physicians and dentists, the bill also sets aside $300 million for the National Health Service Corps to provide incentives for physicians and dentists to practice in medically underserved communities. The corps provides debt forgiveness and grants for medical and dental students in exchange for practicing in underserved areas. The bill also provides an additional $200 million for other health care professionals, including nurses, to become involved in primary health care. 

Sanders late last year joined Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) in calling for funds in the stimulus bill for health centers and the National Health Service Corps. In a December 16 letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Inouye and Sanders wrote that funding the programs would create thousands of jobs in construction and health care while laying the groundwork for broader health care reform. Reid strongly supported the proposal. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate panel that funds medical research, health care and education initiatives, also championed the provisions in the stimulus package. Leading supporters in the House of Representatives were Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and the chairmen of two key committees, David Obey (D-Wis.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).

Other health care provisions in the bill that Obama signed include about $19 billion to develop a system of electronic health records.  Another $1.1 billion is set aside for research comparing which treatments work best for a particular disease. The measure also allots about $1 billion for a "prevention and wellness fund." About $300 million of that would provide additional immunizations. Most of the rest of that money will go to programs on smoking, obesity and various preventable health problems.