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Budget Battle Poses Threat to Community Health Centers

GOP targets funds for preventive care

by Theo Emery

WASHINGTON — Construction workers have transformed the parking lot alongside the Lynn Community Health Center into a sleek, three-story annex that will double the center’s capacity to provide checkups, dental work, and therapy for the city’s poorest residents.

Yet even as bricklayers and electricians prepare the building for its August opening, a funding battle in Congress threatens to choke off the new services before the doors have opened. Republicans want to cut more than a billion dollars bound for such clinics, a move that would force centers across the country to cut back many services. Dozens of new centers could be forced to close, advocates said.

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Community health centers, pioneered by Boston almost a half century ago, are a cornerstone of efforts to expand health care coverage to all Americans while cutting costs. By offering preventive care to poor, uninsured residents, these neighborhood centers reduce the chances these patients will end up in hospital emergency rooms for vastly more expensive treatment, with taxpayers picking up the bill, health analysts say.

“Why would you want to give someone access to more expensive care if you could take care of it in a less expensive way? It makes absolutely, positively no sense on any level,’’ Representative Michael E. Capuano, a Somerville Democrat, said of the GOP efforts. Capuano was a founder of the Congressional Caucus on Community Health Centers.

Republicans characterize their proposed cuts as a necessary piece of their overall effort to rein in government spending. Their approach would also cripple President Obama’s health care overhaul.

Steve King, an Iowa Republican who has been a leader in GOP efforts to repeal the health care law, said Republicans are taking a principled stand against what they believe is an unconstitutional and unsustainable federal law. If funding for health centers ends up being sliced, Republicans could revisit the issue after health care repeal, he said.

“I have been very supportive of community health centers; I’ve got some very good ones in my district,’’ he said. “But everybody has to share the pain.’’

Such centers have long been central to health care for the poor. The Columbia Point Health Center in Dorchester — now the Geiger-Gibson Community Health Center — was the nation’s first nonprofit center, transforming how poor Americans received such basic preventive medicine as prenatal care and blood pressure screenings.

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An increase of visits to health centers under the federal health care overhaul would save $181 billion or more between 2010 and 2019, according to a study last year from the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. About $52 billion of the savings would come from federal Medicaid funds and $33 billion from state Medicaid funds. “If people can get good primary care, this means that they can become healthier, so they don’t have to go to the hospital for care, so that we can save money,’’ said Leighton Ku, the study’s lead author.

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