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Access to Health Care Subject of Senate Hearing

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held a hearing on March 22 to discuss increasing access to essential health care services for the uninsured through the Consolidated Health Centers and the National Health Service Corps. Authorization for both programs is set to expire September 30, 2001.

Claude Earl Fox of the Health Resources and Services Administration detailed the Consolidated Health Centers, which include Community Health Centers, Migrant Health Centers, Health Care for the Homeless programs, and Health Care for Residents of Public Housing. According to Mr. Fox, these health centers served roughly 9 million individuals in 1999, 3.7 million of which were uninsured.

Noting the importance of providing preventive services, Mr. Fox stated, “Health Center low birth weights approximate the national average for all infants and are 30 percent lower than the national average for African American infants. Women served at Health Centers received more up-to-date mammograms than women in the general population (62.2 percent to 44.5 percent).” Additionally, health centers provide more than 270,000 HIV tests, 900,000 Pap tests, 2 million immunizations, and perinatal and delivery care for 137,000 women.

Dennis S. Freeman of the Cherokee Health Systems agreed that community-based health centers provide an important safety net. However, Mr. Freeman noted that mental health needs are not being met through these centers. “Mental health concerns, including problems of substance abuse, are the second most frequent problem presented by health center patients,” he stated, adding: “In some of our rural areas we are the only health care providers, in most of our rural areas we are the only mental health provider.”

Velma Lopez Hendershott of the National Association of Community Health Centers noted that many health centers are financially pressed. “Some are struggling to keep their doors open, in these increasingly difficult times. Today, only 60 percent of all federally supported health centers are able to offer on-site dental services, 70 percent offer on-site pharmacies, and less than 50 percent offer mental health services—all due to a severe shortage of available resources.”

Under the President’s budget proposal, community-based health centers would receive a $124 million increase in order to support a multi-year initiative to increase the number of community health centers by 1,200.

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