Blumenthal’s Hill Health Rx: Fight GOP Budget

Allan Appel Photo“It won’t hurt a bit,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal assured Irene Vitello, who was in for a teeth cleaning at Cornell Scott Hill Health Center’s dental clinic on Monday afternoon. What will hurt, Blumenthal said, is if D.C. Republicans succeed in passing sweeping cuts to the community health clinic system.

The Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representative passed a budget with $60 billion in cuts on Saturday. On Monday at Hill Health on Columbus Avenue, Blumenthal promised to fight to ensure they don’t become law, and asked for ammunition for the Congressional battle to come.

Blumenthal spoke to a room full of CEOs from community health clinics across the state. He repeatedly warned of not only public health losses, but job losses if the GOP measures pass. He claimed that 3,000 jobs in Connecticut—and 300,000 across the country—would disappear if the House bill becomes law. Republicans argue that cuts in government spending will spur private-sector job growth and that failing to cut spending now will cost the public more in the long run because of the growing deficit.

“These numbers ought to be the most powerful evidence against the cuts,” Blumenthal said. He called the budget bill a “travesty.”

Cuts to community health centers would cause economic effects to ripple beyond the centers themselves, he said. “It’s not just about the centers and patients, but the fabric of our community. You can’t work if you’re not healthy enough. Every CEO will tell you health care is essential to the economy.”

Blumenthal cited estimates for what the Republican House budget would mean in terms of cuts for Connecticut health care, if adopted by the Senate and signed into law by President Obama. The estimates come from the Center for American Progress, a liberal, Democratic-affiliated think tank:

• 2,923 jobs in Connecticut community health centers.
* $300,000 less for Maternal Child Health Block Grant programs by $300,000 in Connecticut.
• $900,000 less in teenage pregnancy prevention grants.
• $262,000 less in Community Mental Health Services block grants.
• More than $1 million in Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment block grants.

Calling the budget fight a priority for him, Blumenthal then asked asked the health center CEOs to give him ammunition in terms of stories and stats, and the officials complied.

During the roundtable discussion preceding Blumenthal’s tour, the state clinic CEOs all had their own stories. A common theme was that the proposed cuts would not translate into savings because patients would return to emergency rooms, a far more expensive alternative than clinics, and taxpayers would ultimately foot the more expensive bill.

Alfreda Turner (pictured with Blumenthal), CEO of the Charter Oak Health Center in Hartford, said that her clinic three weeks ago was unable to make appointments for 380 people who called for them. “Two weeks ago it was 390. Last week, 400 appointments ... It’s very scary for us,” she said.

Hill Health’s Chief Operating Officer, Michael Taylor, said that the clinic, which treats over 33,000 people a year, was in danger of serious cutbacks. A large portion of the center’s $45 million budget, which supports 500 employees, is government-dependent.

Taylor said cutbacks could force the center to reduce its hours, which now extend to three nights a week and Saturdays. A triage clinic and an urgent care clinic might also be in danger.  Both have been successful in keeping people out of the emergency room, Taylor said. If those two clinics were forced to close, it would mean laying off two nurses and two doctors.

Cuts could also prevent Hill Health from completing renovation of its dental clinic, which Blumenthal toured with head of dentistry Dr. Felipe Ordonez. The renovation depends on federal funds.

Ken Green, who runs Community Health Services in Hartford, said he is very concerned about his ability to hire quality doctors and nurses.

Green said doctors regularly ask during job interviews what his center’s funding situation is like. “If I tell a candidate we’re facing $700,000 to $1 million in cuts, that won’t make us competitive.”

“Stability,” murmured Blumenthal.

Hill Health CEO Jai Henderson said specific projections of the consequences of cuts have not been worked out. She said if her facility cannot handle its patient load after cuts, patients might be sent to clinics in neighboring communities like Hamden.

Henderson said that the most tragic effect of cuts would be on the thousands of people who have come to see Hill Health as their “medical home.” Without access to the center’s care, they would revert to old habits, which lead to the emergency room, Henderson said.

The cuts would “prevent people from seeking the care they need. They’ll prevent our common efforts to control costs by increasing emergency room use. They’ll prevent economic growth” by forcing layoffs, she said.

On Monday, Blumenthal also visited veterans at the West Haven VA facility.

Horse-trading in the upcoming congressional fight over budget cuts may force hard decisions. Blumenthal was asked if he would have to choose between fighting for public health clinics, veterans’ services, or transportation infrastructure. He said all might be funded and cuts avoided. There is enough money to be found in closing loopholes and tax breaks for corporations such as big pharmaceutical companies, Blumenthal said.

“I hope to come back with better news next time so the threat of cuts will be avoided,” he said.

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