The Times, Trenton

Preserve Health Care Access

The Times of Trenton — Friday, June 5, 2009

The Times of Trenton Op-Ed

During every budget season, our elected officials are charged with making very difficult decisions. During good times and bad, each and every year the governor and the Legislature must balance the needs of New Jersey's 8.5 million residents with available resources, while attempt ing to align those interests and preserve essential services.

This years' budget process has already proven to be one of the most challenging the state of New Jersey has experienced in decades, possibly ever. While all funding sources, service levels and innova tive proposals to protect and preserve essential services must be examined closely and given serious consideration, New Jersey's most impoverished residents must be harmed and their access to quality healthcare preserved.

Each year, the New Jersey Primary Care Association (NJPCA), whichrepresents the 19 federally qualified health centers and 90 sites in New Jersey, has been providing essential health-care services to more than 367,000 patients — providing more than a million patient visits a year. These 367,000 patients are men and women who are both uninsured and New Jersey's most vulnerable residents — either homeless, well below the poverty level, undocumented individuals and/or immigrants.

To put the NJPCA's patient population into perspective, the 367,000 patients treated at the NJPCA's 19 health centers is greater than the populations of Somerset, Hunterdon, Warren, Sussex, Mercer, Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, Salem and Gloucester counties. Despite pub lic perception, geographically, these 367,000 patients are spread all over the entire state; this population is not concentrated in New Jersey's urban areas.

On a national basis, and here in New Jersey, health centers are see ing more patients than ever before. Nationally, the number of health center patients has swelled to more than 16 million. From 2000 to 2007, the number of health center uninsured patients has increased by62 percent. Many of those patients are the newly uninsured due to the economic downturn. Here in New Jersey, between 2001 and 2007, uninsured patients treated in federally qualified health centers increased by 83.1 percent, with an annual growth rate of 11.0 percent.

The economic downturn has had a tremendously adverse effect on New Jersey's health-care infrastructure. Physicians, hospitals, health centers and patients are all feeling the strain and attempting to deal with it every day. Over the past two years, hospitals throughout the state have closed their doors permanently.

More and more New Jersey residents have found themselves unemployed and uninsured. These factors have placed extreme pressure on New Jersey's strained federally qualified health centers. The economic downturn has forced many New Jersey residents, who have found themselves unemployed and uninsured, at the doorstep of New Jersey's federally qualified health centers seeking care.

The NJPCA has been proactive in doing its part to help manage this crisis and care for the "worst of the worst." Our New Jersey health centers have instituted emergency room diversion programs, stepped up to provide care when a hospital has either closed or decided to no longer offer outpatient services or obstetrics services, opened new sites and added services, and are open on evenings and weekends.

Members of New Jersey's health-care community, providers and policymakers alike, are working together on the development of innovative ideas and approaches that preserve state funding and take full advantage of federal funding opportunities. We encourage in novative thinking and any new ideas that ensure access to quality health care and keep New Jersey's most vulnerable population from being harmed.

The NJPCA and its members will have a very difficult time em bracing any budget reductions and/or funding gimmicks that threaten the access to care or harm New Jersey's growing impoverished population.

Despite the growing demand, constrained resources and economic strains, we have worked in partnership with New Jersey's health-care providers to ensure ac cess to quality health care to New Jersey's most vulnerable and impoverished population. We urge the governor and the Legislature to continue to do the same and thank them for their past and future support.

Kathleen Grant-Davis is president and CEO of the nonprofit New Jersey Primary Care Association, based in Hamilton.

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