In a teleconference Friday morning, federally funded community healthcare centers across Pennsylvania told the story of how dire operations have become as they wait for a decision from the federal legislators.

The decision deadline looms next Thursday.

One of those on the line was Kristie Bennardi, CEO of Keystone Rural Health Consortia, which operates five sites providing primary medical and dental care to 4,800 patients throughout Centre, Cameron and Elk counties.

“Our health center has seen continued growth and expansion over the last several years. However, over the last six months, we’ve been forced to make contingency plans due to the uncertainty of continued health center funding,” Bennardi said.

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.

To survive, this month the consortia laid off two employees, left four positions unfilled and cut everyone’s hours by 2 ½ hours a week. It also reduced hours at two of the dental clinics and put a hiring freeze on the replacement of a retiring dentist

“”Unfortunately, we couldn’t wait for Feb. 8 to come. Without these cuts, we would have had a hard time making our payroll in January,” Bennardi said.

The consortia applied for a line of credit at a local bank that was unwilling to approve it because of the uncertainty of the group’s federal funding.

While healthcare leaders from across the state said in the Friday morning call that they are trying their best to stay afloat during the wait. It has been a struggle.

Thus far, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-PA, has been a vocal advocate, pushing for the full funding of health centers.

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-PA, hasn’t taken an official position because of his concerns with the budget.

Advocates argue that studies show that health centers save $1 billion in Pennsylvania alone by providing 80,000 patients per year with healthcare services, including low-income patients, helping to divert them from emergency rooms and providing them an atmosphere for preventative care, resulting in healthier outcomes.

Currently, the federal government has agreed to reauthorize CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program) for the next six year. Community health center advocates are hoping to get the same extension by Feb. 8, however historically the centers’ funding has only been approved on a biennial basis.

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