WASHINGTON, January 6 - Senator Bernie Sanders - after a meeting with former Senator Thomas Daschle, President-elect Barack Obama's nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services - announced today that he soon will introduce legislation to vastly expand community health centers.
On the first day of the new session of Congress, Sanders (I-Vt.) said his bill to provide primary health care for all Americans would dramatically improve health care while at the same time producing significant savings.
"Today we're looking at some 60 million Americans who do not have access to a doctor, a dentist, mental health counseling or low-cost prescription drugs," Sanders said. "Frankly our primary health care system is a disaster and it must be reformed now."
Sanders' new legislation will be patterned after the Access for All America Act that Sanders offered during the last session of Congress. That bill was cosponsored by Obama and Senate health committee chairman Edward Kennedy. Like the earlier measure, the new bill would ensure that every American has access to comprehensive primary care services at a Federally Qualified Health Center in their community.
Sanders discussed his proposal during a meeting Monday with Daschle, Obama's choice to be the health and human services secretary. Daschle is a supporter of community health centers. "These clinics are a godsend for many people across the country,
particularly those who live in rural areas with a shortage of health-care providers. Even if we achieve ‘universal' coverage, there will be some percentage of people who still fall through the cracks," Daschle wrote in his book, Critical: What We Can Do about the Health Care Crisis.
In Vermont, there were only two centers six years ago. Now there are seven. "The number of people now able to get high-quality health care has significantly expanded. We are making progress," Senator Sanders said, "but we all recognize that we have a long way to go."
Medical expenses at the health centers are 41 percent lower than in other health care settings. The centers save taxpayers money by treating Americans when they need care and avoid unnecessary and expensive emergency room visits. In fact, community health centers are credited with reducing spending on health care in the United States by $10 billion to $18 billion a year.
With an annual budget of $2 billion, 1,100 community health centers now serve 18 million people nationwide. Applications by an additional 800 centers have been submitted but have not been funded because of inadequate resources. Providing resources for those 800 centers and another 2,900 new centers over the next 5 years would provide comprehensive primary care for every American who needs it.
"My hope is that in the coming years we will expand that program so that every medically-underserved area in this country will have a federally qualified community health center," Sanders said.
To watch the senator's statement on the bill, click here.