Senator Bernie Sanders had it just right when he said of the healthcare legislation signed Tuesday morning, "This legislation revolutionizes primary healthcare in America."
The historic bill signed today by President Obama includes provisions Senator Sanders long advocated for, including $10 billion over five years to expand, construct and operate community health centers. It also increases the investment in the National Health Service Corps to train more primary care doctors and other health care professionals. Another $2.5 billion for health centers operations is in the reconciliation package.
All told, the legislation will double the number of health center sites nationally over the next five years from 7,500 to 15,000. The number of patients served by these facilities will rise from 20 million today to about 40 million by 2015. That means most Americans will have access to primary care, dental care, mental health counseling, and low-cost prescription drugs on a sliding-fee scale so that no one is turned away. Since 18,000 Americans die annually due to their inability to afford insurance or care, these facilities are literally life-saving changes in our health care system.
The $1.5 billion allotted for loan repayments and scholarships through the National Health Service Corps will add more than 17,000 primary care doctors, dentists, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and mental health professionals in medically underserved areas. This is critical since today over 56 million Americans–both insured and uninsured–have difficulty even finding a doctor in their communities.
Senator Sanders is quick to point out that the investment in community healthcare centers actually pays for itself–"it’s a win-win."
According to researchers at George Washington University, the healthcare centers will save Medicaid $17 billion over the five-year period that would otherwise be spent on more expensive hospital and emergency room care. The American Academy of Family Physicians found that total medical expenses for health center patients were 41 percent lower compared to patients seen elsewhere.
About 6 months before his death Senator Edward Kennedy–who created the federal community health center program in 1966 and cosponsored legislation with Senator Sanders last year to strengthen it–said, "Community health centers and the National Health Service Corps are more important than ever. From inner city clinics to low-income communities across the country, they make a large difference in the health of millions of our people. I look forward to working with my colleagues to strengthen these two vital programs as part of our commitment to achieve quality, affordable health care for all Americans."
Today those programs have indeed been strengthened, and we are a stronger nation for it.