A critical vote on health care funding is eminent in the U.S. Senate – and Hope Clinic needs the community’s help in contacting Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison.

What’s at stake is whether or not $1.3 billion worth of funding removed by the U.S. House for federally qualified health centers is restored. A vote in the Senate could occur as early as today.

Already this week, in anticipation that the House bill will stand, the federal government has informed Hope Clinic, which serves all of Ellis County, that its federal funding is being cut from $53,000 per month to $13,895 per month, effective as of March 1.

The clinic is in the third year of a three-year contract with the federal government to provide Medicare/Medicaid patients. The first two years, Hope Clinic received $650,000 per year, allowing it to add services and staff. With the funding uncertainties, all of the progress made in increasing the health care provider’s ability to serve Ellis County’s indigent, uninsured, underinsured, Medicaid and Medicare patients is now in jeopardy.

Clinic CEO Dr. Mackie Owens is hoping people will pick up the phone and or e-mail Cornyn and Hutchison’s offices so they realize the vital role the organization performs.

The choice before the Senate is simple: affirm the House bill and its cut to federally qualified health centers such as Hope Clinic – or – vote for a Senate bill that restores the money.

Already, Owens has had to put on hold plans to add a fourth physician and a full-time dentist at Hope Clinic.

“We can’t stay at the level of personnel we have unless we have the funding,” she said. “We won’t be able to provide the services that are needed – and the community here is not going to be able to pick up the difference.”

If the Senate doesn’t restore the $1.3 billion (which affects 1,200 federally qualified health centers nationwide), Owens said she doesn’t have much hope two other grants applied for by the clinic will be filled. One of those grants would open a sub-office in Ennis to better serve the eastern portion of Ellis County.

“We need calls to our senators,” she said. “Every center in the country would have reduced funding. Everybody will be affected.”

Owens points out any lessening of access to the federally qualified health centers will only cost taxpayers more in the long run as those patients – who no longer have a primary care facility – return to their local emergency rooms for health care.

“That will come at a higher cost to the taxpayers,” Owens said. “There are studies that show that when we (federally qualified health centers) treat people, the cost is reduced, the cost of services is reduced, but the quality is the same.”

It doesn’t make sense, with healthcare reform under way, to decrease, if not remove, a point of access, she believes.

“We are the people who take the uninsured and underinsured,” she said. “We’re serving 5,000 people. If we have to reduce the number of people we serve – there are only so many slots per staff member – they will have nowhere to go other than the emergency room.”

Owens said she’d met a woman at this past weekend’s Lifestyles Home and Family Expo in Waxahachie who’d been to four emergency rooms over a several-month period seeking help with a cyst.

The woman was repeatedly turned away because it wasn’t considered “urgent,” Owens said, saying that the cyst continued to grow until the woman finally found a hospital that would take her as a patient.

“She didn’t know about Hope Clinic,” Owens said. “If she had known to come to us, we could have made that five-month process shorter. … There would have been a shorter time to getting her the treatment she needed by going through us as a primary care office. That’s the kind of thing that Hope does.”

At the same time cuts are being proposed at the federal level, Owens also is keeping a wary eye on what’s happening at the state level in Austin, where lawmakers are proposing a 15-percent reduction in funding, with doctors receiving less in reimbursement for Medicare/Medicaid patients. If that drives additional doctors out of serving those patients, that will move even more people into a situation where they have “no place to go,” Owens said, noting people should also be calling Austin to express their concerns with the cuts.

As a multi-service health facility, Owens said the nonprofit’s commitment to serve remains steadfast, the uncertain funding notwithstanding.

“We just don’t know at what level (at this time),” she said.

Contact the U.S. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn at the following:

• U.S. Senator John Cornyn

517 Hart Senate Bldg.

Washington, D.C. 20510

(202) 224-2934

Dallas office:

972-239-1310

• U.S. Senator

Kay Bailey Hutchison

284 Russell Senate Bldg.

Washington, D.C. 20510

202-224-5922

Contact JoAnn at joann@wninews.com or 469-517-1452.