Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Teaching Health Center: A Great Program Threatened by Republican Shortsightedness

After decades of concern for the deep and worsening crisis in our country due to a shortage of primary care physicians, the Obama administration proposed - and passed as part of the health reform bill, a program to directly fund health centers for the training of primary care physicians. Combining the longstanding committment to excellence in primary care with the social committment of the primary care providers that practice in community health centers, the idea of using this successful model to train a new generation of primary care providers was brilliant. Directly funding these programs was essential in that programs funded through hospitals often direct large portions of the training to the inpatient setting to extract more inpatient service from the residents in training. But the model, like other important parts of the health reform legislation is under attack.

H.R. 1216, authored by Congressman Brett Guthrie (R-KY), rescinds the unobligated portion of the $230 million in total mandatory funding available to support Teaching Health Centers (THCs) for FY2011-FY2015. This bill would make the program subject to the annual appropriations process rather than committing the $46 million per year for FY2012-FY2015 in the health reform legislation to fund Teaching Health Center activities.

This year HRSA announced 11 THC grantees, of which 9 are community health centers with our own Institute for Family Health's Kingston Family Practice among them. Funding this year through this program will support the expansion of our Kingston rural residency by 12 residents. The residents will train along side our dedicated primary care physicians - all practicing in medically underserved communities. 6 of these residents will be training in our remote rural center in Ellenville, New York, (pictured below) where they will learn what rural medicine is really like, and, upon graduation, will become part of a cadre of physicians trained to practice in parts of the country where there are few if any primary care services.

If enacted into law, H.R. 1216 will make it challenging for us and the other 10 programs that have already made the decision to participate in this program based on a promise of continuous funding. The new legislatiion being proposed means that the programs would have to fight for limited discretionary funding each year. The National Association of Community Health Centers has said "In this difficult budget climate and with House Republicans reluctant to support the implementation of health reform, despite clear statements by Energy and Commerce Members on both sides of the aisle that this legislation advances a worthy goal of training more primary care physicians, if H.R. 1216 were to become law it puts the new THC grantees future funding in jeopardy."

We need to do everything we can to support the continued funding of Teaching Health Centers. The primary care shortage is real and even in its first year, substantial increases in primary care training will be achieved through this program. Let's keep a good thing going!

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