MIDDLEBURY/BRISTOL — A planned Bristol-based clinic for the under-insured could face a substantial delay in light of federal budget cutting now under way in the nation’s capital, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders said on Thursday.
At issue is a Federally Qualified Health Center, known as an FQHC, that Sanders and members of the Five-Town Health Alliance have been seeking to establish in Bristol. The FQHC model offers primary care, dental, behavioral health, and preventative healthcare services to everyone, regardless of insurance status or ability to pay.
There are currently eight FQHCs in Vermont serving a combined total of 110,000 people, and Sanders, an Independent representing Vermont in the U.S. Senate, has been trying to establish clinics in Addison and Bennington counties.
Boosters of the Bristol FQHC had applied for $650,000 in federal funding to help get the nonprofit clinic — tentatively slated to be an anchor tenant of a redeveloped Bristol industrial park — up and operating as soon as this fall.
But Sanders, communicating by speaker phone on Thursday to more than 100 people who had gathered at a Middlebury Union High School rally he organized to protest current and potential federal cuts to social services, said FQHC funding has now been pared back.
“As part of the last budget bill that was passed a few weeks ago — which I voted against — there was a cut of $600 million for FQHCs,” said Sanders, who was unable to be at Thursday’s meeting in person due to weather-related flight delays. “What that cut means is that it is going to be harder, but not impossible, to start new community health centers in the future; it is going to slow us down.”
He acknowledged that Addison County has a “strong” FQHC application and said he was going to “fight hard for it. But I would not be honest if I didn’t tell you that as a result of that last budget, it will be harder to get the two new community health centers, but not impossible.”
Sanders stressed the impact of proposed federal budget cuts would go far beyond FQHCs and predicted the pain would be felt in particular by those who can least afford it.
“The middle class, in many ways, is disappearing; that is the reality of what is taking place in our country today,” Sanders said. “And while the middle class is in decline, and poverty is increasing … the people on top are doing phenomenally well.”
He said the wealthiest 1 percent of the country’s citizens now earn more than the bottom 50 percent.
Sanders reiterated his belief that income tax rates should be increased on the wealthiest Americans as a way of whittling down the national debt and reducing the burden on the poor and middle class.
He said the national deficit is $1.6 trillion and the national debt $14 trillion. Sanders charged that Congressional Republicans are seeking to pay down the deficit by eliminating social programs, while at the same time awarding tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans.
He pointed to significant federal budget cuts included in a draft offered by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. The so-called “Ryan Budget” would cut 200,000 slots from the Head Start program (which Sanders said already has a waiting list of clients). The plan would also turn the Medicare plan that would replace current health care coverage with $8,000-per-year health care vouchers that seniors would use to purchase insurance through private carriers, according to Sanders. Other programs targeted for substantial cuts, Sanders said, include Medicaid; weatherization, fuel and affordable housing subsidies; Pell grants; and “undoing” Social Security.
“The same people who want to undo all the programs … want to give $1 trillion in tax breaks to the very wealthiest people in our country, despite the fact that these people are already doing very well,” Sanders said.
Preventing such cuts will be challenge for Democrats and independents in Congress, Sanders said.
“I will do everything that I can to make sure that deficit reduction does not take place on the backs of our children, the sick, the elderly and the most vulnerable people in our country,” Sanders said.
Several citizens who figure to be hit hard by budget cuts listened intently to Sanders and offered their own personal stories.
A young mother identifying herself as Brandy from Monkton said there is an increasing disconnect between Washington and struggling families.
“Some politicians don’t know that much — they don’t know what it’s like to be low on money, to go to the food shelf and feel the embarrassment as people stare as they go by,” she said. “They certainly don’t know what it’s like to struggle for your kids, to run out of diapers at the end of the week but be out of money.
“Have our politicians been told they have three days to find a home? Have they spent a night at the homeless shelter and felt the embarrassment walking out?” she added.
Middlebury resident Heather Smith recalled living at the John Graham Shelter for four months. Since then, she said her life has taken a turn for the better, thanks to help from the Addison County Parent-Child Center. Through the center, Smith said she has been able to get housing and culinary skills she hopes will lead to owning her own restaurant some day.
“My life has change so much,” Smith said.
But she added she hopes her ascent to a self sufficiency isn’t derailed by cuts to support programs.
“I’m hoping to further my education, get an associate’s degree in culinary arts or business management, but if there are all these cuts, I am thinking ‘How am I going to do this?’” Smith said. “It is going to be so very hard.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]