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5-year-old health center still grows, but funding at risk

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PHOTO/STEVE REINBRECHT
The first Berks Community Health Center is on Penn Street in downtown Reading. It opened five years ago.
PHOTO/STEVE REINBRECHT The first Berks Community Health Center is on Penn Street in downtown Reading. It opened five years ago.

In five years, Berks Community Health Center’s growth has exploded by every measure – patient visits, staffing, funding, hours, services and number of care providers and locations.

5-year-old health center still grows, but funding at risk

By STEVE REINBRECHT

Special for Lehigh Valley Business

In five years, Berks Community Health Center’s growth has exploded by every measure – patient visits, staffing, funding, hours, services and number of care providers and locations.

But with some lawmakers pushing to reduce Medicaid, the center in Reading – which served more than 10,300 mostly poor people in 2016 – faces trouble.

The center accepts all patients, basing charges on their income.

Since opening in June 2012, it has added a medications-based opioid-abuse program, optometry, dentistry and, to encourage better prenatal care, free pregnancy tests,

It has grown to three locations and a staff of 92, including 26 care providers.

“And we’re not done yet,” said Mary Kargbo, CEO of the nonprofit, federally qualified health center.

Center doctors and nurses treated more than 10,000 patients in 2016, up from about 6,000 in 2014. Nearly 60 percent were female, and more than 2,000 were children.

Nearly 85 percent were poor, earning less than $24,300 a year for a family of four.

More than 70 percent used government health-care insurance – Medicaid and Medicare – and 11 percent had no insurance.

So much need remains – demonstrated in part by emergency room statistics in Berks County – that the center could still double or triple in capacity, Kargbo said.

Staff is considering new locations and crunching ER-usage data supplied by hospitals to identify the neediest neighborhoods.

FILLING A NEED

Reading’s health center and those like it across the country perform a vital community function, Dr. Michael Baxter, chairman of Reading Health System’s Department of Family and Community Medicine, said in an email.

Most communities do not have enough primary care services, especially to meet the needs of people who use Medicaid or don’t have insurance, Baxter said.

Few primary-care doctors accept new patients enrolled in Medicaid, having met their quotas and finding the lower reimbursements from that program a financial burden.

The government’s role in providing health insurance is under hot debate. The center would not survive without federal money.

SEPT. 30 EXPIRATION

Kargbo is worried about a “funding cliff” on Sept. 30, when the existing agreement runs out. That concern is separate from Republican proposals to gradually reduce Medicaid expenditures.

The center always has received strong local bipartisan support, Baxter said.

However, he said, proposed funding cuts, especially to Medicaid, would reduce access to care throughout the health care system and further increase “the excessively high volume in emergency departments, which affect all of us.”

LOCAL BACKING

In May, Kargbo invited U.S. Reps. Lloyd Smucker and Ryan Costello to the center to demonstrate the need.

Smucker, a Republican who represents Reading, supports funding for the federally qualified health centers, spokesman Bill Jaffee said.

Costello, a Republican who represents much of Berks, also supports continued funding for the centers and voted for the Medicare Access and Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act in 2016, spokeswoman Natalie Gillam said in an email.

“These votes make clear Rep. Costello is committed to ensuring FQHCs [federally qualified health centers] have the resources they need to carry out their important work,” she said.

SAVING TAX DOLLARS

Kargbo said that, compassion aside, the center deserves support because it saves lots of public money.

“How do we save money? By keeping people healthy,” she said.

People without a regular doctor’s office tend to postpone care until conditions are much more expensive to treat. They also overuse emergency rooms, where care is more expensive, for problems that aren’t emergencies.

Hospital records show some Reading residents visit ERs as much as six times a month, Kargbo said.

FIVE-YEAR STUDY

Reading Hospital has the highest number of ER visits in the state – averaging more than 350 a day in 2016. Emergency room staff refer every visitor to the center, Kargbo said.

The hospital also is working with the center on a five-year study to measure the center’s effect on ER visits.

Prenatal care leads to healthier babies. Employers save money when employees are healthy and productive, and don’t need to miss work because their children are sick. Healthy children do better in school.

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