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Federal Cuts Put Petaluma Health Center Expansion at Risk

Congress approved $600 million in cuts to community clinics last month; move means less money for new staff as PHC moves to new location

, the second largest provider of health services in southern Sonoma County, stands to lose an estimated $500,000 following last month's cuts by the federal government. The cut represents a 4 percent loss of the center's overall $12 million budget.

The announcement comes just a month before the center, which serves some 16,000 people a year, will relocate to a new facility at North McDowell Avenue and Corona Road and puts at risk ambitious plans to hire 35 additional staff and more than double the number of patients the center serves.

“Grants play a significant part of our budget,” said Holly Butler, Director of Community Relations at the Petaluma Health Center. “That $500,000 could represent doctors, nurses and folks we need to take on all those additional patients that are not only coming our way now, but that will come our way as healthcare reform passes.”

The $600 million cut to the Community Health Centers program was part of a deal between the White House and Congress reached last month to reduce federal spending, although it’s significantly less than the $1 billion in cuts that was initially proposed.

The new site of the Petaluma Health Center, which will have 44 medical exam rooms, 13 more than the current location, is nearly built. Its medical equipment has already been ordered. But finding the money to pay for additional doctors and other staff will be a challenge for the center, which, in addition to federal grants, also relies on patient co-pays, Medicare, Medi-Cal and private insurance for funding.

Butler said staff are already “extremely adept” at stretching the dollar and are working at full capacity.

“We need to be able to have the funding to get more providers on board to see those patients, so they don’t have to wait months and months to get an appointment,” she said. “Those expanded services money was something we were really counting on.”

Many of the center’s patients are the working poor. But a growing number are people who lost their insurance after being laid off or those who have been shut out of the private medical insurance market by pre-existing conditions. The clinic also offers a sliding scale payment option, which is funded by federal grants, which make up about 22 percent of the clinic’s budget.

The new, expanded facility is paid for with $8.9 million in stimulus funding and a $495,000 in federal appropriations, pushed through by Rep. Lynne Woolsey (D-Petaluma.) Woolsey voted against the $600 federal cut to clinics saying it would “pull the health care safety net away from the uninsured.”

Butler urged residents to contact state and federal legislators to voice concern over the defunding of community clinics, which for many people are the only way they can see a doctor.

“It’s really a public health issue…You want your kids to be healthy and employees, wherever they are working, to be healthy and productive because it costs a business a tremendous amount of money if folks are out sick,” Butler said. “It benefits the entire community from a public health standpoint and from an economic standpoint.”

Sheri Johnston May 12, 2011 at 10:52 PM
No more cuts,people of Petaluma need a healthcare center i am a patient there it does not need to happen when the city is growing where are they going to go!

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