Access Family Care received a federal checkup on Friday when U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., an advocate of federally qualified community-based health care centers, toured a $1.4 million expansion of the Joplin clinic.

Blunt was interested in seeing the clinic's addition and remodeled spaces because he is a founding member and co-chairman of the U.S. Senate Community Health Centers Caucus that is seeking renewed federal funding for centers such as Access.

"Right now we are trying to expand these programs for another five years," he said. He and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who is co-chairing the caucus, are trying to get a $215 million increase as part of a five-year renewal that would total $1.63 billion for the nation's federally qualified centers.

"Both the Senate and the House are working to reauthorize this program, so I am optimistic we will be able to extend the funding and the program for the next several years," Blunt said.

Access and health centers like it qualify for funding under the Public Health Service Act, receiving enhanced reimbursement from Medicare and Medicaid, and other benefits for providing services to people on a sliding fee scale because of the federal funding.

"This is a facility where, under this model, if you've got insurance, they'll take your insurance, if you have a government program that you're on, they'll take that program, and if you're paying cash, there's a way to pay cash and on a sliding scale that really works for almost every family. So they are a critical part of the health care system," Blunt said.

He said it is important for people to understand the role of federally qualified health centers because they give people a way to obtain medical care. "I am a big advocate, and I think most of the health care community over the past couple of decades has also become a big advocate for the role these centers play and the ability of everyone who comes through the door to find a way they can get treated," Blunt said.

A companion program, the National Health Service Corps, awards scholarships and loan repayment to primary care providers such as doctors and dentists who agree, in return, to work at federally qualified centers. The program was created in 1972 to recruit more health care workers for areas in need of more service.

Blunt said he is trying to expand the National Health Service Corps funding with $15 million of the proposed increased funding. During his Friday tour, he spoke with two dentists working at Access who received tuition assistance through that program.

Bri Phillips is participating in the National Health Service Corps Student to Service Program. Because of that, the corps will pay a large part of her student debt while she works at a federally qualified health center. Though she will still have a large debt, the service program will take care of about $120,000, she said.

"It's a win-win situation for everyone because the patients get the care that they need and we also get our loans paid from dental school," Phillips said.

Conner Eaustian, another dentist, said that instead of doing the Student to Service Program, he participated in a corps scholarship program that provided his tuition and a living stipend. "After I graduate, I am required to commit four years to a federally qualified health center.

"The average student that graduates today from dental school graduates with about $285,000 in student debt," he said. "I graduated with much, much less than that." His debt payments would be about $3,000 a month without the scholarship. "It's crushing debt, really it is," he said.

John Smith, Access executive officer, said the center's medical space was expanded from 5,000 to 15,000 square feet. A number of new exam rooms were built in space that was formerly unused in the building at 530 S. Maiden Lane. New digital X-ray equipment was added that allows medical personnel to immediately see the results of a scan rather than having to wait on processing of them.

"We can see up to approximately 175 patients a day just on the medical side," Smith said. "We are currently running about 80 patients a day." The dental unit capacity has been expanded from 70 to 90 patients a day, up from 60.

Successes like that of Access makes the case for Blunt's effort to get the Community Health Centers funding bill approved, he said.

Don McBride, the CEO of Access, said of Blunt's visit, "We're excited about it. He's a big proponent of community health centers and always has been, and I know it's on his agenda to keep us going, keep us funded."

He said Access also needs Congress to continue funding the National Health Service Corps. "If we didn't have that, we wouldn't have the staff that we have of dentists and medical providers as well," he said. "That's got to be kept."