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Arlington Legislators Critical of 'Safety Net' Cuts

Hope, Lopez: Proposed cuts to free clinics, other health care services could cost Virginia more in the long-term.

Local legislators say Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposed cuts to the state’s health care safety net – a long list of providers that includes the Arlington Free Clinic – could end up costing Virginia more in the long run.

McDonnell, a Republican, has proposed a two-year, $85 billion spending plan that moves millions from public education and health care over to three areas his administration considers priorities: transportation, higher education and the state’s pension system.

It withholds $300 million in inflationary increases from Medicaid and several million more from various safety net agencies. Among the latter cuts is about $1.6 million to the Virginia Association of Free Clinics.

Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, called the safety net cuts “short-sighted.”

“This is a short-term economic fix, but a huge long-term economic problem,” Lopez said. “Instead of addressing (medical) problems in the short term, people will have to go to the emergency room… and it will cost considerably more for the community and the state than if you were able to invest in preventative care.”

Lopez is working with Del. Rick Morris, a Carrollton Republican, to restore the cuts.

The Governor’s Office counters that the cuts do take into account long-term considerations. The federal Affordable Care Act, regardless of whether the individual mandate is overturned by the courts, will allow more people to enroll in Medicaid – which, in turn, would cover services they currently receive at free clinics.

“The governor will reevaluate both the need and the available funding for all programs, including the Association of Free Clinics, as new developments in the state’s economy and in federal mandates on states occur,” McDonnell spokesman Paul Logan told Patch.

"It's something the Governor's Office is going to be keeping a close eye on in the coming year. And changes could be made."

The Arlington Free Clinic, near the intersection of Columbia Pike and Walter Reed Drive, has an annual budget of about $2.5 million, which consists almost entirely of donations. Under the governor’s proposal, it would lose $1,600 next year and $40,000 – or half of its total state allocation – the year after that.

The clinic – which treated about 1,650 patients over the last year and holds a monthly lottery to accept new patients – also has received a one-time allotment of $40,000 from Arlington County. That’s not guaranteed to happen again.

“We raise everything other than those two pots of money. I have to raise every other dollar in the private sector,” said Nancy Pallesen, the clinic’s executive director.

“It’s hard. It’s hard to raise money. Forty-thousand dollars may seem small if you’re looking at a $2.5 million budget, but that’s hard to make up. So, it’s significant for us.”

About 145 people have been showing up each month for the new patient lottery. Each time, 25 are accepted as new patients. The rest try again next month and take the names of other area clinics that have waiting lists of their own.

Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, said there’s been an “enlightenment” in Richmond that makes him optimistic the free clinic money will be restored.

“Managing a disease in a doctor or physician setting is much cheaper than in a hospital-type setting,” Hope said.

“That is an extreme expense on the system. So having these free clinics in place to manage these chronic diseases ends up saving the Medicaid budget even more. It's like the old adage, ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’ Free clinics are worth their weight in gold in keeping people out of the emergency rooms. That point is not lost on people.”

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