WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, voted in favor of a temporary spending bill in the House of Representatives on Tuesday night that included critical funding for Community Health Centers and funds the government through March 23.
The bill, which passed 245-182, is the first step toward averting a Thursday night shutdown, when government funding is set to expire. The bill now heads to the Senate. This is the fifth stopgap funding measure Congress has passed since the federal fiscal year expired Sept. 30.
The House bill includes the reauthorization of vital Medicare funding that rural health facilities rely on to stay operational. The most significant policy is the renewal of the Community Health Centers Fund, which had funding that expired at the end of the federal fiscal year.
Tipton signed a letter Monday to House Speaker Paul Ryan, along with more than 100 of his colleagues, that expressed “serious concern” about the lapse in funding for community health centers and called for the speaker to include CHC funding in the next piece of legislation sent to President Donald Trump.
“Community health centers are vital to ensuring that families throughout Colorado and the United States have access to quality health care,” Tipton said in a news release after Tuesday’s vote. “In Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, community health centers play a critical role in caring for thousands of families, veterans and folks battling addiction.”
The temporary spending bill provides two years of funding for CHCs. Federal grants are fundamentally important to CHCs because they don’t turn people away based on ability to pay, making them especially liable to financial losses. They also serve communities that tend to be older, poorer and sicker.
There are three federally designated CHCs in Southwest Colorado: La Plata Integrated Healthcare, Axis Health System Oral Health Clinic and Cortez Integrated Healthcare. All three are maintained by Axis Health System.
“Community health centers, as well as rural health clinics and critical-access hospitals, are really vital to the infrastructure within a rural community,” said Michelle Mills, CEO of Colorado Rural Health Center. “They typically employ many of the workers, so health care is typically one of the top three employers in a rural community.”
The bill also includes a two-year renewal of the Prospective Payment System – federal dollars that help designated rural hospitals, such as Mercy Regional Medical Center in Durango, stay profitable.
A five-year extension of rural ambulance payments is also in the bill, providing financial relief to rural ambulance providers, which can cover large regions with just a few ambulances and often rely on a volunteer force.
The House stopgap includes funding for the military through the end of the fiscal year.
The House bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where it is unclear how the upper chamber will vote.
Legal protection for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients continues to be central to discussions surrounding the temporary spending bill in the Senate. Congress faces a March 5 deadline to protect DACA recipients after the Trump administration rescinded President Barack Obama’s executive order in September, although a federal court temporarily blocked the Trump administration from rescinding work permits.
Uncertainty looms for 850 federal employees in Southwest Colorado as they face the threat of furlough if the government shuts down again. Three weeks ago, “non-essential” employees missed one day of work after the weekend shutdown extended into Monday.
The last shutdown battle centered on immigration, with Senate Democrats refusing to provide votes necessary to meet the 60-vote threshold required to pass a spending bill in the Senate, unless permanent protection for DACA recipients was included in the bill.
The Republicans have only 51 votes in the Senate. Three weeks ago, 33 Democrats joined 48 Republicans to reopen the government on the last day of the shutdown. Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and Cory Gardner, a Republican, both voted in favor.
Andrew Eversden is an intern for The Durango Herald and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.