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American healthcare is in crisis. We must fight for the real needs of the people

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Today in America, we have a major crisis in primary health care. Tens of millions of people, including many with health insurance, are unable to access a doctor or a dentist when they need one. The result is that patients suffer unnecessarily and become sicker than they should. Some end up at expensive emergency rooms and some in hospitals. Our healthcare system wastes billions of dollars on expensive care that could be avoided with a strong primary care system.

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Ask any doctor or nurse, and they will tell you this: having reliable access to high-quality primary healthcare is a big part of what keeps people healthy. This is exactly what the more than 1,400 federally qualified community health centers and their 10,000 delivery sites in this country provide every day.

We know community health centers work. Legislation that we introduced in 2009 greatly expanded community health centers as part of the Affordable Care Act, and we are extremely proud of what they are accomplishing. It is time to build on that success.

The bill that we just introduced -- the Community Health Center and Primary Care Workforce Expansion Act -- does just that. It calls for a doubling of the number of patients served by community health centers. Under this bill, community health centers throughout the country would be able to increase the number of patients they serve with high-quality healthcare -- from roughly 25 million today to 50 million people in the next decade.

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We believe that in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, every American should have a medical home. This will not only save lives and ease suffering, but will save taxpayer dollars by providing some of the most cost-effective care in the country.

When compared to other providers, community health centers save, on average, $2,371 per Medicaid patient and up to $1,210 per Medicare patient. In one year, they generated more than $24bn in savings to the entire national healthcare system. And because community health centers help people maintain and improve their health and wellness by focusing on primary care that is reasonably priced, they also help people avoid bankruptcy because of unaffordable medical costs.

Our bill also doubles the amount of money for the National Health Service Corps (NHSC). At a time when we desperately need more doctors, dentists and nurses in medically underserved areas, this successful federal program provides debt forgiveness for medical professionals who are prepared to practice in communities that need them.

Our bill also includes robust investments in Teaching Health Centers and Nurse Practitioner Residency Training Programs, which train new primary healthcare doctors and nurses -- the majority of whom are trained in community health centers and continue working in them after graduating.

Today community health centers protect, preserve and improve the health and wellness of 25 million Americans, including some of our country's most vulnerable residents. In addition to healthcare, they also provide dental care, mental health services and the lowest cost prescription drugs in America.

They provide care to 13 million people in rural communities -- most of whom have nowhere else to go. These centers care for 300,000 veterans, tens of thousands of homeless people and roughly 2 million medically underserved seniors. And they do so regardless of a person's ability to pay, their nationality or religious background, or where they live. In fact, one in three people living in poverty are served by community health centers; one in five who receive health care from them are uninsured.

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In the rural states of Vermont and South Carolina, which we represent, community health centers play an enormously important role in the provision of healthcare. In Vermont more than 155,000 people -- almost 25% of the state's population -- receive their primary care at community health centers; in South Carolina the number is more than 360,000. For many of these patients, and millions more throughout the country, community health centers are literally the difference between life and death.

In addition, community health centers create jobs and are a boon to local economies in communities that are often struggling. Nearly 190,000 people are employed by community health centers and they generate more than $45bn in total economic activity.

Today, it is vitally important that we fight back against the disastrous Republican "healthcare" plan that would throw 22 million Americans off health insurance while giving $500bn in tax breaks to the very rich and large corporations.

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Bernie Sanders is the independent U.S. Senator from Vermont. He is the longest serving independent member of Congress in American history. He is a member of the Senate's Budget, Veterans, Environment, Energy, and H.E.L.P. (Health, Education, (more...)

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