Open Door dental clinic

Mark Thomas hugs Open Door Health Center dentist Dr. Carolyn Giannelli after a recent appointment. The health center is one of 16 safety-net clinics that faced potential budget cuts due to congressional inaction on renewing funding. The funding was approved Friday. Photo by Pat Christman

MANKATO — It took two government shutdowns and a more than four-month wait, but Open Door Health Center will receive the federal funding it’s been waiting for.

Congress’ budget deal passed early Friday included $7.8 billion in grant funding for nearly 1,400 community health centers, also known as safety net clinics, providing care to 27 million patients across the country.

With its portion secured, a potential 26 percent hole in Open Door’s budget will now be filled.

Open Door CEO Doug Jaeger said he’s appreciative the funding came through, calling it a relief.

“It feels a lot better having that safety and security,” he said. “Knowing the funding is there makes some of our decisions easier to make going forward.”

The feeling was shared at thousands of sites operated by the community health centers nationwide, said Dan Hawkins, senior VP for policy and research with the National Association of Community Health Centers.

“More than a sigh of relief, it’s a shout of joy,” he said. “Folks can get back to business doing what they do so well across the country.”

The renewal comes decidedly late for community health centers whose grant schedules came due already. Hawkins said some were forced to shutter sites, while others lost providers as the funding remained uncertain.

“Anything like this incident of uncertainty, even for a relatively limited four-month period ... just so unnerves the situation that it makes their struggle all the harder,” he said.

Hearing from an administrator at a Delaware community health center forced to close a site, he said the space they formerly occupied is no longer an option. They’ll now have to explore other locations.

Rehiring the providers some sites lost will be another challenge, especially in rural communities where recruiting staff is already hard enough, he said.

Jaeger said Open Door’s later grant cycle allowed them to avoid any similar cuts or layoffs, but they were hesitant to hire providers as the uncertainty continued.

“We ended up being much more diligent about open positions and deciding if we needed to have them or not,” he said. “It did impact some of our staff positions. Staff turnover has been a little higher due to the uncertainty.”

Open Door plans to bring on one or two medical providers and a couple of dental positions now that they can bank on the funding. 

Advocates of community health centers tout bipartisan support for the care the clinics provide for uninsured and underinsured patients, which makes the delay of recent months all the more puzzling to them. Hawkins said the dysfunction and political extremism of the last year will hopefully calm itself by the next renewal deadline in fall 2019. 

“I think we’re very hopeful this moment of insanity and dysfunction has lapsed, and Congress in particular can get back to the business of governing,” he said.

For now, this particular pool of funding for community health centers will be safe for about 18 months. The renewal is technically considered a two-year extension, but it’s backdated to October 2017 when the original deadline passed.

Permanent funding hasn’t been a reality for community health centers. Given the funding limbo they’ve existed in lately, Jaeger said 18 months of safe funding is much preferred.

The next push, though, will be to secure longer-term funding.

“It’s a never-ending process,” he said. “We wish they’d give us more than two years so we could get out of their hair and we could feel safer.”

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArolaMFP.

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