Community Health Centers

President Obama on Monday offered a detailed legislative proposal for overhauling health care. The package includes $12.5 billion to dramatically expand community health centers and bolster training for primary care physicians. Senator Bernie Sanders said the president’s plan would create or expand more than 7,500 health centers over the next five years. A major increase for health centers and boosted funding for physician training both were championed by Sanders and included in health reform legislation passed by the Senate last Dec. 24. The president’s proposal for both amounts to a $2.5 billion increase over the amount provided in the Senate-passed health reform bill.

The president’s plan, according to Sanders, would double the number of health center sites nationally over the next five years from 7,500 to 15,000 sites. The $11 billion the White House allocated for health centers would increase the number of patients served from 20 million today to about 39 million by 2015. That investment in health centers, Sanders added, would save Medicaid $17 billion that would otherwise be spent on more expensive hospital and emergency room care, according to a George Washington University study.

The White House proposal incorporated another Sanders provision in the Senate bill that would provide $1.5 billion for loan repayments and scholarships through the National Health Service Corps. The increase would add more than 17,000 primary care doctors, dentists, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and mental health professionals in medically-underserved areas.

The system of Federally Qualified Health Centers began four decades ago under pioneering legislation by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Community health centers now provide primary health care, dental care, mental health counseling and low-cost prescription drugs for about 20 million Americans.

The 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. Payments are on a sliding scale, so people with low or moderate incomes can afford the services.