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Mass. Community Health Centers Furlough Staffers, Fear More To Come

Many of the 52 Community Health Centers in Massachusetts are placing staff on furlough amid a worsening coronavirus outbreak.

Health center leaders say this is the first round of layoffs — with more potentially to follow — as health centers struggle with a loss of revenue from check-ups, dental care, elective tests and procedures that have been postponed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Most of those furloughed are support staff, not clinicians, according to center leaders.

“Health centers will play a critical role both during the COVID response and after,” said Jim Hunt, CEO of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers.

Hunt says health centers are taking some of the pressure off hospital emergency rooms, caring for patients with immediate needs like a broken arm as well as complications related to diabetes and heart disease. He asked for support for health centers like his to prevent further layoffs and keep the centers solvent.

“We cannot allow a 55-year-old program with a tremendous track record of success in improving the health and well-being of lower-income, diverse communities to fail,” Hunt said.

Community health centers are the primary care providers for about 1 million Massachusetts residents, many of whom have free or subsidized coverage. The centers join Boston Medical Center, Atrius Health and dozens of individual doctors' offices that have furloughed or laid off workers as revenue from routine care drops. The state’s hospital association says its members are losing $1 billion a month due to the temporary halt on non-urgent care.

The East Boston Neighborhood Health Center is putting 10% of staff on furlough. CEO Manny Lopes says the center is losing $1 million a week because patients are no longer coming in for routine care. Lopes says the federal stimulus package would cover about one week’s worth of lost revenue. The Baker administration has fast-tracked $200 million in advance payments to safety net providers, which includes health centers.

“These are definitely difficult times,” Lopes said. “It’s harder to deliver the services our community needs right now. It's impacting staff morale and is just more challenging to do the work that we want to do.”

Lopes says his center and others are working to ramp up their telehealth capabilities to care for patients who don’t need to be seen in person. But many patients don’t have the devices or internet access to run some of the telehealth programs. Lopes says tele-medicine could help his center get back to about 75% of normal patient volume and revenue in some departments.

Health centers are also struggling to find the masks, goggles and gowns needed to protect staff, as well as enough tests for every patient who comes in with symptoms of coronavirus.

Related:

Martha Bebinger Twitter Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.

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