The day that Congress and Trump actually got health care right | Ronnie Polaneczky

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Theresa Williams Pope and nurse practitioner Tarik Khan share a laugh at Abbotsford Falls Family Practice and Counseling Network.

Hey, do you hear that noise – that whooshing sound coming from all around the country?

It’s from patients like Theresa Williams Pope, who is exhaling in relief.

“If not for this place, I don’t know where we’d go,” said Pope, 62, during her visit this week to the Hunting Park office of the Family Practice and Counseling Network (FPCN). It’s a federally funded community network of six health centers that provide high-quality care for low-income people.

Run by nurse practitioners, FPCN is a gleaming, beautiful godsend of an operation that has won reams of national best-practice awards for its model of care.

Until last Friday, when the president signed a budget that reauthorized funds for America’s 10,280 community health centers, the future of FPCN was in jeopardy. Which meant the future of Pope, her son, and FPCN’s 25,000 other patients was in jeopardy, too.

Pope’s son is 32 and schizophrenic. For years, the medical care he received elsewhere was so inadequate, he often had to be hospitalized for erratic behavior. The experiences terrified him, which only exacerbated his mental crises.

“No one could help him” outside of a hospital, says Pope. “All I wanted was to keep him home with me.”

The sun came out when Pope found FPCN.

“They embraced us,” says Pope, whose use of the word us indicates how deeply her son’s illness impacts them both. “They refused to turn us away, even when my son was at his worst. I’d be panicking and they’d say, ‘It’s OK — we’ll figure this out.’ ”

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Theresa Williams Pope explains how difficult it was to find adequate care for her son, who has schizophrenia.

Slowly, her son stabilized as the staff at FPCN patiently tried different medicines and therapies. The better he got, the more he trusted the staff and the more willing he was to comply with his treatment plan.

Which has kept him out of the hospital ever since.

Pope’s is one of countless success stories that unfold every year in America’s 10,280 community health centers, where 102.5 million visits occur annually. For 50 years, their federal funding has been solid, thanks to bipartisan support that has remained strong since the country’s first two centers opened in 1965 during Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.

But Sept. 30, the key federal-funding source for the centers expired. It was extended through March 18, but no one knew if or to what extent the centers would be financed in a budget forged by a Congress whose majority hasn’t much empathy for the poor and vulnerable.

To save every penny for a worst-case scenario, many centers across the country started closing satellite offices, laying off staff, or reducing hours at their sites. Others nervously dipped into reserve funds while considering the unthinkable, like ending dental, mental-health, and addiction services that had been improving the lives of the unlucky.

“This is the first time anything like this has happened,” says Jim Willshier, policy director of the Pennsylvania Association of Community Health Centers. The state has 300 center sites in 52 counties, whose 806, 000 patients generate three million visits per year.

“It really creates barriers to care,” he says.

The worry ended last Friday, when Donald Trump signed a budget that not only reauthorized funding to the country’s community health centers but actually expanded it.

In other words, bipartisan humanity and common sense won the day. Even a Congress as fractured and warring as ours knows that this country has gotten it right when it comes to our community health centers.  Because 50 years of evidence shows that the centers deliver efficient, compassionate, and cost-effective care.

Increased access to timely primary and preventive services does more than save and improve quality of lives. It generates $24 billion in annual savings to America’s health-care system, especially by reducing expensive ER visits, whose average per-visit cost is six times that of a center one.

“We’re thrilled,” says nurse practitioner Donna Torrisi, who heads FPCN. “We’ve made so much progress over the past years, the thought of cutting back was devastating.”

Pope couldn’t be happier, either. Now that her son is on a right track, it’s time for her to get there too. She just completed her master’s degree in film and now produces videos for her church. Next, she wants to prioritize her well-being.

“I’ve been so worried about my son, I’ve neglected myself,” she says. So she has started seeing FPCN nurse practitioner Tarik Khan to improve her own health.

An ounce of prevention saves lives. And billions of dollars to all of us.