Dentist at Work

Elk County Commissioner Matt Quesenberry gets a quick look over by dental assistant Ashley Simbeck, left, and Dr. Suzanne Maslo during a ribbon cutting last year at a Keystone Rural Health Consortia dental clinic. 

While Congress passed a short-term Continuing Resolution extending government funding through Jan. 19, that has not been enough support to keep some rural community health centers fully afloat.

Less than one year ago, the doors opened to the Fox Township Dental Center. The facility marked the first time in 50 years that a dental practice had a presence in the small, rural community. Once open four days per week, it’s now open three.

“Without the certainty of funding past two months we have begun to put our contingency plan in place,” said Kristie Bennardi, CEO of the Keystone Rural Health Consortia, which has a budget of just over $3 million.

There are approximately 292 community health centers across the state.

The consortia currently has four medical facilities in Fox Township, Emporium, Ridgway, and Snow Shoe, and dental centers in Emporium, Johnsonburg and Fox Township. It is looking to open a new dental site in Kane in February.

As a non-profit running federally qualified health centers, the mission of the Consortia is to serve the underserved and to serve all, regardless of their ability to pay. Forty-three percent of its patients are Medicaid.

From Bennardi’s perspective, its community health centers have seen significant demand in recent years to now provide care to over 4,000 patients with our 45 employees.

“I have cut two positions, we will not fill three vacant positions, and we have gone from a 40 hour work week to 37.5. In addition we had to decrease office hours at two of our dental sites,” Bennardi said.

While the short-term funding bill allocated $550 million specifically for Community Health Centers, as well as limited funds for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), these funds represent the minimum amount necessary to maintain current services long enough for Congress to revisit this issue in January.

Congressman Glenn ‘GT’ Thompson, who voted in favor of the continuing resolution told the Courier-Express, “Prior to being elected to Congress, I spent nearly 30 years in non-profit healthcare, serving those with life changing diseases and disabilities. I have always been a strong supporter of community health centers, which provide underserved and rural areas much needed access to quality primary care. I remain confident an agreement will be reached to extend the program and will continue to advocate for such as we finalize federal spending for Fiscal Year 2018.”

Despite several members of Congress giving their vote of confidence, Bennardi said the future remains rocky and the consortia continues to wait and see.

“Even if they end up giving us our funding at the same level, we face this same funding cliff in October 2019,” Bennardi said. “This means that all of the changes we put in place now we will have to keep to try to build up reserves.”

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