In Vermont and around the country, we have a major crisis in primary health care. Far too many people are unable to see a doctor or a dentist when they need one. Some people lack health insurance and can’t afford the care. For others, especially in rural areas like Vermont, there are simply no doctors or dentists nearby.
The result is that patients become sicker than they should, and some eventually end up in emergency rooms. Others suffer unnecessarily and some even die. Meanwhile, our health care system wastes billions of dollars on expensive care that could be avoided by strengthening how we deliver preventive and primary care.
Ask any doctor or nurse and they will tell you that access to reliable, affordable and high-quality primary care is essential to keeping people healthy. This is exactly what the 65 community health center locations in Vermont do and why they are so critically important. In addition to preventive and primary care, federally qualified health centers also provide mental and oral health services, substance use disorder treatment and access to affordable prescription drugs. Each center is designed to provide locally-tailored services to improve the health of the communities they serve.
Community health centers do all of this great work while charging a sliding fee, meaning quality care is accessible to everyone, regardless of a person’s ability to pay. Impressively, even while providing these lower cost services, community health centers generate more than $24 billion in annual savings for the U.S. health care system. Preventive and primary care are excellent investments. In addition, health centers employ 220,000 people in communities that are often struggling, generating nearly $55 billion in economic activity.
In 2009, I fought hard for new funding in the Affordable Care Act to greatly expand community health centers. Since then, 24 new health center locations have opened in Vermont and today, 176,000 Vermonters — more than 28 percent of all Vermonters — rely on a community health center as their provider of choice. Nationally, 28 million Americans are now served by health centers.
That’s pretty impressive. But some areas of Vermont still don’t have a health center, and others are at or near capacity or would benefit from expanding their services. This includes enhancing capacity to better address the opioid epidemic.
Moreover, if Congress does not act by Sept. 30, community health centers will lose the federal funding they need to keep their doors open.
That is why Congressman Jim Clyburn and I just introduced the Community Health Center and Primary Care Workforce Expansion Act. Our bill will not just keep the doors open, but it will fund the expansion of many existing clinics and build new ones where needed. And the bill will expand access to community health centers to millions more patients.
This will be tremendously helpful to the thousands of Vermonters who struggle to afford their health care costs and who could benefit from greater access to the quality and affordable care provided at a community health center.
Our bill also addresses the shortage of primary care providers in underserved areas, which we are feeling acutely in Vermont. The bill provides funding to bring on 6,100 new primary care providers all across the country. It also increases funding for the National Health Service Corps, which provides scholarships and loan repayment for medical professions who agree to practice in underserved communities. These initiatives will help get more doctors, dentists and nurses to the areas that desperately need them, including right here in Vermont.
In the richest country in the world, no one should go without basic health care. As we look for solutions that help keep people healthy while also reducing costs, we should build upon the success of our community health centers by expanding them to everyone who needs them.
Bernie Sanders is an independent in the U.S. Senate. He is running for the presidency as a Democrat in the 2020 election.