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Budget deal puts VT health centers at risk

April 12, 2011

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON — A $600 million cut to community health centers included in a budget deal struck last week by House Republicans, Senate Democrats and the White House makes it unlikely that all three centers sought in Arlington, Bristol and Randolph will be funded.

The 11th-hour deal reached late Friday cuts about $38.5 billion from the current federal budget and dodged a government shutdown. Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders said Tuesday, however, that he will not support the deal because of the health centers and other cuts.

“What we are looking at right now is absolutely not good news. What we have seen is that the community health center budget will go from $3.2 billion down to $2.6 billion,” Sanders, a strong advocate for the health center program, said in a telephone interview. “What this means, primarily, … is that there will not be cuts to existing community health centers. The very bad news is that where we had $600 million for new community health centers, we now have $100 million.”

The number of centers in Vermont has expanded from two to eight in recent years. More than 110,000 Vermonters now receive primary medical care, dental care, mental health services and low-cost prescription drugs from such centers. Three additional centers sought in Arlington, Bristol and Randolph have applications pending. The reduction in funding for new centers is problematic, though, Sanders said.

“I will do my best to make sure that of the remaining $100 million that Vermont gets its fair share, but I would be dishonest if I didn’t say that I was very, very disappointed,” he said. “When you have one-sixth of the funding that you had yesterday, it’s going to make funding these centers that much harder.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has designated Arlington, Sandgate and Sunderland as being under-served in terms of access to health care. The designation is needed to establish a federally qualified health center. Bennington County is the only Vermont county that does not currently have access to a federal health center.

Sanders said he expects further cuts to the health center program as the GOP puts together the 2012 budget. He plans to seek allies in Congress to resist that effort, he said.

“I am an enormously strong advocate of community health centers because I think it is absolutely imperative that we provide health care to all Americans and all Vermonters,” Sanders said. “At the end of the day you save money. People with primary care do not go to the emergency room for care.”

Sanders railed against other cuts Tuesday, including:

  • $414 million in cuts to grants for state and local police departments
  • $1.6 billion reduction in the EnvironmentalProtection Agency budget
  • $950 million cut to community development block grants
  • $390 million cut to the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)

“Today, in order to reduce deficits that Republicans helped create, they now are slashing programs of enormous importance to working families, the elderly, the sick and children,” Sanders said. “At a time when the gap between the very rich and everybody else is growing wider, this budget is Robin Hood in reverse. It takes from struggling working families and gives to multi-millionaires. This is obscene.”

While Democrats ceded ground on some cuts, they also staved off cuts sought by the GOP, including an effort to stop funding of Planned Parenthood.

Sanders, a member of the Senate Budget Committee, said he will work with members of the House and Senate to reduce the federal deficit in a fair way.

“This budget moves America in exactly the wrong direction,” Sanders said. “While there is no question that we must reduce soaring deficits, it must be done in a way that is fair, which protects the most vulnerable people in our country, and which requires shared sacrifice. I will not support a budget that will cut programs for struggling working families, the elderly, children and the poor while expanding tax breaks for billionaires, maintaining corporate tax loopholes and increasing military spending. That is just plain wrong.”

Contact Neal P. Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com

 

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