The Coast News Group
Vista Community Clinic
Vista Community Clinic stock photo

Without funding, community health centers face grim future

REGION — Community health centers around the county and nation are facing more budget cuts and shuttered clinics if federal relief funding doesn’t arrive soon.

On March 27, President Trump signed the bipartisan Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which provided $100 billion in relief funds to hospitals and other health care providers — all currently dealing with responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of that amount, $50 billion is allocated for general distribution to Medicare facilities and providers impacted by COVID-19. From that, $30 billion was distributed between April 10 and April 17, and the remaining $20 billion began distribution on April 24.

Though some Community Health Centers (CHCs) throughout the country received funds like those in rural areas, clinics in urban and suburban communities, including in San Diego, are going without.

Local CHCs only received $1 million of that first $30 billion, according to Henry Tuttle, president and chief executive of Health Center Partners of Southern California. That amount barely makes a dent in the loss of revenue those health centers are facing, he explained in a letter addressed to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar.

“Given this or similar distribution formula, these additional dollars are woefully insufficient to stem the current state of loss at $241 million over the next six months, $1 billion for all California Community Health Centers over the next three months,” Tuttle said in his letter.

In mid-April, Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano) sent a letter to Azar signed by 72 other House representatives asking for funds to go specifically to CHCs.

Vista Community Clinic (VCC) is one of the CHCs being affected by COVID-19 and in need of funds at this time.

According to CEO Fernando Sañudo, Vista Community Clinic has stopped optometry, chiropractic and acupuncture medical services and only provides dental service if it’s an emergency.

“That reduces the volume of patients by about 25%,” Sañudo said.

Sañudo said the clinic is losing about $1 million a month as a result of not having those services.

VCC, which has six clinics throughout Oceanside and Vista, one in Orange County and another in Riverside, has furloughed 70 employees and reduced the hours for an additional 50 employees. So far, VCC has closed three of its clinics in Oceanside and Vista.

The clinic has also seen a drop in patients coming in for medical and behavioral health services. Right now, the clinic is handling 85% to 90% of patients’ regular visits using telehealth, either by phone or another media platform.

“We’re very disappointed in the fact that Community Health Centers were not noted as one of the health care centers of concerns since we oversee a majority of the population’s health,” Sañudo said.

VCC has more than 280,000 patient visits yearly and serves over 70,000 low-income patients. Sañudo said the clinic also sees the largest minority population, with 68% of patients who are Latino and 4% African American.

“We serve a greatly underserved population,” Sañudo said. “They don’t have too many options and they look to us as sole health care providers.”

VCC, like other community health centers, is concerned about an increase in the number of patients testing positive for COVID-19. So far, the clinic has tested about 272 patients with at least 20 testing positive.

“We screen every patient that comes in,” Sañudo said.

VCC locations that are open have set up outdoor tents with medical staff who ask screening questions. Patients who are showing signs that they may be positive are asked to wait in their car until a nurse can come out and assess them. Depending on the results, those patients will be brought in to be seen by a clinician before going through testing.

The clinic also makes sure to keep sick patients separated from those who are just coming in for regular visits.

Now, clinic leaders like Tuttle and Sañudo are pushing for HHS to allocate $8 billion to CHCs from the $75 billion that was recently added to the Public Health and Social Services Emergency Fund by the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act.

“If we don’t receive the dollars needed to keep our doors open, we may not have any other alternative than to start closing,” Sañudo said.