SOUTH BURLINGTON — Time, and money, are running out for the community health centers that provide basic medical services to Vermonters, Vermont’s congressional delegation is warning.
A federal program that provides funding for the nation’s community health centers — primary care centers for about 27 million Americans — lapsed last September. The National Association of Community Health Centers says emergency funding is drying up fast.
Absent a federal budget, Congress has been relying on stopgap measures to keep the government running. So far this has not included reauthorizing the community health center fund.
Vermonters make more use of the health centers per capita than any other state, which means they will feel the brunt of the loss of the funding, Sen. Bernie Sanders said Monday at a news conference at Burlington International Airport.
“One out of four people in the state of Vermont are getting their health care, dental care, mental health counseling, low-cost prescription drugs, from community health centers,” Sanders said.
Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch criticized congressional reliance on continuing resolutions saying short-term funding solutions create deep instability in large institutions that rely on long-term planning — such as the federal government.
“We’ve been going month to month, through continuing resolutions,” Sanders said. “The community health center program has not been reauthorized, and has not received the kind of money it needs to do the job it needs to do.”
The fight over a federal budget is coming at the expense of broadly popular programs like the community health centers, said Welch.
Welch, a Democrat, said that it is the responsibility of the majority party, the Republicans, to present a budget for debate on the House floor, and failing to is hurting broadly popular programs.
“This is totally unnecessary. Community health centers enjoy broad bipartisan support,” Welch said. “We’re in the fourth month of our fiscal year, and we’re on our fourth continuing resolution.”
Sanders and Welch were joined by the directors of two Vermont community health center networks — Alison Calderara, CEO of the Community Health Centers of Burlington, and Kevin Kelley, CEO of the Community Health Centers of Lamoille Valley. Both emphasized the scale and the importance of the medical services community health centers provide.
Calderara said that in the past few months her staff of more than 300 has seen 1,000 people with diabetes, 273 people with asthma, 1,500 with symptoms of anxiety and 200 dealing with a mental health crisis. The health centers have dispensed 4,000 flu shots, and performed 2,000 dental exams.
“I respectfully request that Congress return this commitment that our staff and that community health centers have shown to our community and country,” Calderara said.
The Community Health Centers of Burlington treat about 28,000 patients, Calderara said.
Federal funding provides about $2.2 million of the Burlington center’s annual budget of $28 million, and about $1.2 million of the Lamoille Valley center’s $18.5 million annual budget.
For Welch, Mueller investigation takes precedence over impeachment
Earlier this month, Welch voted to table a motion in the House that would advance articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump.
This marks the second time Welch has voted against supporting the political process for removing a sitting president, but pressure has been building for Welch to support impeachment.
A small group of activists loosely organized as Vermonters for Unity met with Welch’s state director, George Twigg, earlier this month, and asked Twigg to pass along a message to his boss.
“It’s just time. It’s time to dump Trump,” said Robert Appel, a civil rights attorney who attended the meeting.
The activists argued that Trump’s vulgar comments about immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and Africa amount to the last straw among a litany of other grievances.
They also argued that given the trouncing Trump got in Vermont, and his continued drop in the polls, Welch is hardly at risk of losing support in his home state should he vote to advance impeachment.
Welch responded on Monday by repeating what he said following the last impeachment vote in December, saying that the best way to hold Trump accountable is to allow the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller to continue unfettered.
“Every action that we take I think should be in reference to (the consideration), will it help, or will it hurt to diminish the authority of the Mueller investigation. That’s the real goal here,” Welch said.
Welch also said he would like to see Congress act to protect Mueller, noting there is ongoing debate over legislation that would prevent Trump from firing Mueller.