By LAUREN C. WILLIAMS
WASHINGTON (Feb. 27, 2009)—The Access for All Americans Act is the best way to rebuild a "terribly broken" health care system, said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., Thursday, because it will provide early and ample medical help.
The act, introduced Thursday, picks up on President Obama's call for immediate health care reform. It would create four times the number of community health centers where patients can receive preventative, dental, mental health and emergency care.
"If you don't make the connection of the people to the health centers, you can't have health care reform," Cardin said at a Capitol Hill news conference.
This bill is the "most significant thing we can do" to provide health care for those in need, said Cardin.
The act would expand the Community Health Centers Program, which provides health care nationwide on a sliding scale according to income and even accepts patients with inability to pay. The bill would add Americans in "medically-underserved" areas over a five-year period and quadruple funding for federally qualified health centers to more than $8 billion.
"Insurance coverage is not the only crisis we face," said Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., who championed the bill. Cardin and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., co-sponsored the legislation with 18 other senators.
Too many Americans are unable to get to a doctor's office, Sanders said.
"Senator Cardin and I believe that these centers will be a safety net" for people seeking health care, said House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., who also championed the bill.
The legislation would also appropriate more than $1 billion for the National Health Service Corps, an organization of physicians dedicated to serving needy communities, in order to train and forgive the school debt of tens of thousands of new doctors.
"(Obama) is picking up on something that is already working," said Maria Gomez, president and CEO of Mary's Center, a federally qualified health center in Maryland, of the support of federally funded health care centers by former President Bush.
"We want to see everyone who walks in our doors."
In Maryland, there are 105 health service sites, most in the Baltimore area, that serve nearly 216,000 patients who make almost a million clinical visits a year, as reported by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
"That's not enough," Cardin said.
The "system is terribly broken," Cardin said. It's "busting at the seams."
"If we get this health care reform right it will save us money," said Cardin.
"When we talk about expanding health care and services, this is the way to do it," said Gomez.
And Cardin said: "This is something we cannot afford not to do."
Here are some things that the bill is set to achieve by 2015:
-- Increase the number of health center programs from 1,100 to 4,800. Maryland has 15.
-- Expand the number of patients served from 18 million to 60 million.
-- Reduce Medicaid's financial burden by $16 billion each year, because the cost of care for Medicaid recipients in the health centers is 30 percent lower than when they are seen elsewhere.
-- Save up to $80 billion by reducing emergency room visits and unnecessary hospitalization.
-- Create 370,000 new jobs in economically challenged communities.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.