“If you are willing to volunteer in your neighborhood or give back to your community or serve your country, we will make sure that you can afford a higher education.”
— President Obama, Address to Joint Session of Congress
I’ve always believed it’s important that we redefine national service so that it isn’t the exclusive province of the military. That is why this line in President Obama’s powerful speech on Tuesday night was good to hear. One critical achievement in the Recovery bill was that it tripled funding for the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) to $300 million to provide incentives — including debt forgiveness and grants — for physicians and dentists, medical and dental students, to practice in underserved areas.
Thursday, Senator Bernie Sanders and House Majority Whip James Clyburn announced legislation that is very much in sync with the President’s stated priorities. The Access for All Americans Act — with 21 Senate cosponsors and 72 cosponsors in the House — would greatly expand the Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) program that currently provides primary care to 18 million Americans in 1,100 community health centers so that every American in a medically underserved area would have access to care. (Even George Bush supported this program.) It would also increase funding for the NHSC over the next five years to $1.1 billion, providing loan repayment and scholarships to those who pursue primary medical and dental care careers in underserved communities, recruiting 24,000 new healthcare professionals to serve those areas.
“Insurance coverage is not the only healthcare crisis that we face,” Sen. Sanders said Thursday at a press conference at the Capitol. “Today, over 56 million Americans — insured and uninsured — are finding it extremely difficult to gain access to a doctor. They’re looking all over their community, they cannot get into a doctor’s office. This means that when [many] Americans get sick… they delay going to a doctor, then they end up getting sicker… and then go into an emergency room or end up in a hospital at great cost to our society and to themselves.” He noted that 18,000 Americans die annually due to their inability to afford insurance or care.
The legislation is timely since President Obama — who Sen. Sanders noted was the first co-sponsor of a similar bill he introduced last session — signaled Tuesday night that he intends to focus on “preventive care, because that is one of the best ways to keep our people healthy and our costs under control.” Also, President Obama announced that his 10-year budget will include a $634 billion reserve fund for healthcare reform, half of which “would come from proposed cost savings in Medicare, Medicaid and other health programs,” according to the New York Times.