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Sun: Lowell health center celebrates as Congress reauthorizes funding

By Rick Sobey, rsobey@lowellsun.com
 
You hear those sighs of relief?
 
They're coming from health centers all across the country -- including from Jackson Street in Lowell and Nichols Road in Fitchburg.
 
After months of nervously waiting, health-center leaders woke up with positive news Friday. In the middle of the night, Congress approved a major spending bill that included a two-year reauthorization for health-center funding.
 
If Congress hadn't reauthorized the Community Health Centers Fund, Lowell Community Health Center would have lost close to $3 million and Fitchburg's Community Health Connections would have lost almost $3.5 million.
 
But those concerns are now gone. 
 
"We're absolutely thrilled," Lowell Community Health Center CEO Susan West Levine said Friday. "A great relief, a great way to end the week after we worked really hard over the past few months to keep this funding on the forefront."
 
U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, who was meeting with Levine in Washington, D.C., a few days ago to discuss ways to fix the funding cliff, voted for the spending bill.
 
A staunch advocate for health centers, Tsongas said she was "grateful" Congress worked out an agreement for the next two years.
 
"This is a critical source of funding for health centers," she said Friday.
 
"Health centers are so invested in the community, and work so hard to provide additional services," Tsongas added.
 
About $2.8 million -- 6 percent of the Lowell center's annual operating budget -- was at risk if the funding was not restored.
 
Lowell Community Health Center serves as the "family doctor" for nearly half of the city's population.
 
The center has 400 employees, and plans on hiring 60 staff members over the next year to meet the community's needs.
 
"It's really excellent to have the funding resolved as we head into early March and have initiatives ahead of us," Levine said.
 
In early March, the center plans to open its dental/vision/primary-care expansion.
 
"It made me nervous about expanding at the same time as taking a hit in federal funding," Levine said. "But now with two years of funding, we'll have some time to stabilize as we open the new building."
 
The Community Health Centers Fund expired in September. The two-year spending bill will provide health centers with funding through Sept. 30, 2019.
 
On Tuesday, dozens of Lowell Community Health Center employees and supporters gathered outside the center for a rally during the "National Day of Demonstration -- Red Alert for Health Centers." Advocates wore red in support of health centers and the patients they serve.
 
Attendees were urged to contact politicians in Congress about the funding.
 
"All those efforts were very important to make sure Congress paid attention to health centers," Levine said. "Lowell really came together for us."
 
Levine added that she's grateful for the federal delegation's support of health-center funding.
 
Fitchburg's community health center would have lost around $3.5 million in federal funding, which is about 15 percent of its operating budget. John DeMalia, the president and CEO of Community Health Connections in Fitchburg, could not be reached for comment Friday.