The HELP Committee chair pledged to work with Senate leadership "in the coming weeks to move this bill forward and ensure that millions more Americans can get the healthcare they deserve."
U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chair Bernie Sanders celebrated on Thursday after the panel advanced his Bipartisan Primary Care and Health Workforce Act, teeing up a possible full-chamber vote on the bill.
"Everyone in America understands that our healthcare system is broken and getting worse," Sanders (I-Vt.) said in a statement. "Despite spending twice as much per capita as any other nation, millions of Americans are unable to access the primary care and dental care they desperately need and we have a massive shortage of doctors, nurses, dentists, and mental health professionals."
"With today's passage of bipartisan legislation in the Senate HELP Committee, we are beginning to address that crisis," added the senator, a longtime advocate of Medicare for All. "I'm pleased this legislation passed with a strong bipartisan 14-7 vote."
"I especially want to thank Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kansas) for his hard work on this legislation," he said. "Together, we will work with Senate leadership in the coming weeks to move this bill forward and ensure that millions more Americans can get the healthcare they deserve."
The committee's decision to advance the healthcare bill—and three others, which were agreed to by voice votes—comes just a week after Sanders and Marshall, a physician, announced that they had reached a deal on the "historic" legislation.
The bill, which took months of work, "increases mandatory funding for Federally Qualified Community Health Centers from $4 billion a year to $5.8 billion a year for three years, which will enable more Americans to receive not only high-quality primary healthcare, but dental care, mental health counseling, and low-cost prescription drugs," Sanders told the committee on Thursday.
"What we have in front of us with your vote is the most significant piece of legislation in addressing the primary healthcare crisis in modern American history."
"In addition, this bill includes a one-time allocation of $3 billion to be used to establish dental operatories so that community health centers can expand their dental care capabilities," he continued. "This legislation will save substantial sums of money. Investing in primary healthcare will keep people healthier and out of hospitals; investing in community health centers will keep people out of emergency rooms, which cost about ten times more per visit than a community health center."
Dr. Kyu Rhee, president and CEO of the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC), said last week that "health centers appreciate the strong leadership from Chairman Sanders and Sen. Roger Marshall."
"This bill lays out a vision that emphasizes the role of health centers and expands their reach beyond the 31.5 million existing patients," he pointed out. "The bill also encourages much-needed growth of the primary care workforce by investing in innovative health center-led career development programs."
Noting Thursday that Senate HELP Committee Ranking Member Bill Cassidy (R-La.) put forth over five dozen amendments, Sanders said: "Is this a perfect piece of legislation? No, I don't think so."
Yet, Sanders stressed, it also represents a remarkable opportunity.
"As every member of this committee knows, it is very difficult to get any substantive legislation passed in Congress today," he said. "Sen. Marshall and I and other senators have tried, and what we have in front of us with your vote is the most significant piece of legislation in addressing the primary healthcare crisis in modern American history."
The Senate panel's vote for the Bipartisan Primary Care and Health Workforce Act comes as House Republicans are self-destructing, pushing the United States toward a potential government shutdown in just over a week. Unless Congress acts to prevent a shutdown before the end of the month, all federal funding for health centers will expire.
NACHC's Rhee said Monday that "I am staying up at night worrying about the stability of our primary care workforce."
"This debate over health center funding comes as clinicians are considering what residency they should go on, what training program, or whether or not they should sign a contract at a community health center," he added. "That is why it makes sense to invest in health centers and in primary care development programs to grow the current workforce of 285,000 health center professionals."