NEWS: In Remarks to Advocates, Sanders Proposes Major Expansion of Community Health Centers

WASHINGTON, Feb. 8 – Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the new chairman of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, on Wednesday during remarks to Advocates for Community Health proposed a historic expansion of community health centers. 

“We must expand these programs so that every American has the ability to access the primary health care, dental care, mental health counseling, and low-cost prescription drugs that they desperately need,” Sanders said, citing many of the benefits of community health centers to taxpayers and patients. 

Sanders’ remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below:

Let me thank the Advocates for Community Health for inviting me here today and for all of the outstanding work that you are doing.

I don’t think I need to tell anyone in this room that we have a health care crisis in America that we have got to address.

In America today, 85 million Americans are uninsured or under-insured, over 500,000 people go bankrupt each year because of medically related debt, and over 68,000 people die each year because they cannot afford the health care they desperately need.

We spend over twice as much per-capita for health care than other major nations – nearly $13,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country. And yet, we have worse health outcomes and lower life expectancy than most developed nations – while private health insurance companies make over $60 billion a year in profits and pay their CEOs exorbitant compensation packages.

We pay, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs. Despite billions in government investment in prescription drug research and development, nearly one out of four Americans are unable to afford the medicine their doctors prescribe.

Now, I happen to believe that the solution to this crisis is to join every other major country on earth and recognize that health care is a human right, not a privilege. But I am not naïve. And the best way to accomplish that goal is through a Medicare-for-All, Single-payer system. Unfortunately, while tens of millions of American agree with me on that issue, we are far from a majority in the Senate. We have no Republican support for Medicare for All and I’m not sure that I could get half of the Democrats on that bill.

Nonetheless, it’s imperative that we continue to push for a Medicare for All system and educate the American people about the dysfunctionality of the current system. And that’s why in several months I will be introducing legislation for Medicare for All.

But while we cannot achieve Medicare for All at this moment, this is what I do believe. I believe that, with your help, we can and we must make primary health care available to every man, woman and child in America through a major expansion of community health centers in America.

In my view, community health centers are a very bright and effective spot in the midst of our broken health care system.

The beauty of community health centers is that they are democratically run by the people on the ground to address the health care needs in their own cities and towns.

I am proud to say that in the last 15 years, working together, we have significantly expanded the reach of community health centers.

Today, in America, 30 million men, women, and children – including 400,000 veterans – receive high quality primary health care at community health centers in 14,000 neighborhoods throughout the United States.

In my own state of Vermont, nearly one out of every three people are now receiving their primary healthcare through a community health center across 73 sites – something that Vermonters are very proud of.

And, as all of you know, these centers do more than just provide primary healthcare.

They also provide dental care, an issue that is too often ignored when we talk about the healthcare crisis.

They provide mental health counseling, which is more important now than it has ever been because of the opioid and heroin epidemic our country is experiencing, and the incredible stresses caused by the pandemic.

Equally important, they provide low-cost prescription drugs at a time when so many Americans cannot afford the medicines they need.

And, these health centers provide this care regardless of a person’s insurance status, bank account, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity or nationality.

That is what community health centers do, and they do it well, and they do it cost effectively.

And that is why community health centers have historically enjoyed bi-partisan support – and that support continues to this day.

President George W. Bush said back in 2005 for example: “I’m a big backer of expanding community health centers to every poor county in America.” And he was followed by Barack Obama who also believed very strongly in community health centers.

But here is the challenge. There are many Republicans who will tell you that while they are strong supporters of these centers, they are also very worried about the deficit and believe in fiscal responsibility.

Well let’s be clear: Community health centers not only save lives, they also save money.

And our job is to make it clear to Congress that if you are worried about the deficit you should support an expansion of community health centers because each and every year, community health centers save the healthcare system $24 billion. How?

It happens because community health centers reduce the need for expensive emergency room visits and hospitalizations, they fight disease outbreaks and they are on the frontlines in addressing our nation’s opioid crisis. 

In fact, it is at least $2,300 less expensive for a Medicaid patient to receive primary health care at a community health center than at another provider.

It is over $1,200 less expensive for a Medicare patient to receive the care they need at a community health center than at another provider.

Community health centers not only save lives, not only ease human suffering, but they save billions for the federal government. They save Medicare money. They save Medicaid money. And they save our entire health care system money because they avoid the need for patients to go to expensive emergency rooms and private hospitals.

Further, community health centers also add about $55 billion to the economy and provide jobs to more than 235,000 people each and every year.

And let’s also be clear. Not only do we have to substantially expand funding for the community health center program, we have also got to address the severe shortage of primary care doctors, nurses, mental health providers and dentists in our country.

Community health centers will do no one any good if they do not have the medical staff necessary to treat their patients.

In America today, nearly 100 million of our people live in a primary care desert, nearly 70 million live in a dental care desert and some 158 million Americans – nearly half the population live in a mental health care desert.

During the pandemic, nearly 1 out of every 5 health care workers, including 100,000 nurses, quit their jobs and another third have contemplated doing so. 

Over the next decade, our country faces a shortage of over 120,000 doctors – including a huge shortage of primary care doctors.

Over the next two years, it is estimated that we will need up to 450,000 more nurses.

Today, it is estimated that we need about 100,000 more dentists.

And in America today, day, there is a shortage of more than 4 million mental health service providers.

That is why I believe we need a major expansion of the National Health Service Corps program — the program that provides scholarships and debt forgiveness for doctors, nurses, dentists, and mental health providers, who are prepared to work in our nation’s most underserved areas.

Without debt forgiveness, it is very hard to get new doctors to choose primary care — an area of medicine that does not pay the kind of money as a plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills or a neurosurgeon in New York City.

But we have got to do a lot more than that. We also need to substantially expand Teaching Health Centers, the Nurse Corps, the Nurse Faculty Loan Program, and the Graduate Medical Education program, among many other things.

During the last Congress, as the Chairman of the Budget Committee, I was very proud to help lead the effort to triple funding for the National Health Service Corps and nearly double funding – $7.6 billion – for community health centers as part of the American Rescue Plan.

This Congress, as Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, I look forward to working with all of you to expand these programs even further.

As you know, if Congress does nothing, some of these programs will run out of funding on September 30th of this year. We absolutely cannot allow that to happen.

Instead, we must expand these programs so that every American has the ability to access the primary health care, dental care, mental health counseling, and low-cost prescription drugs that they desperately need.

We must enable every pregnant woman in America to get the prenatal care they require in order to have healthy babies.

We must enable everyone in America who is addicted to opioids to receive the treatment they desperately need.

We must enable every American to receive the prescription drugs their doctors prescribe at a cost they can afford.

We must give community health centers the funding and resources they need to hire more primary care doctors, nurses, dentists, and mental health counselors who keep these centers going.

And I look forward to working with all of you to make that a reality.

Thank you all very much.