Health officials fear the latest round of state budget cuts will drive more uninsured people to seek care in emergency rooms when they're unable to get care at clinics that serve the poor.
The state's Health Care Authority, an arm of the Department of Social and Health Services overseeing health care services for low-income people, announced Wednesday that it will suspend grants to community clinics for six months starting in January.
The cut saves the agency about $5.3 million through June 2011, according to a news release. A total of$10.6 million had been awarded to clinics throughout the state for 2011.
Of that, about $2 million would have gone to two clinics serving patients in the Tri-Cities.
Tri-Cities Community Health, formerly known as Community Health Center La Clinica, had been awarded $425,000, while Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic had been awarded $1.6 million.
Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic serves 120,000 patients at clinics throughout Washington and Oregon, including in Pasco, Grandview, Hermiston, Prosser and Walla Walla.
Clinic spokesman Glenn Cassidy said the grant money has been used to provide health care to people who are uninsured and who don't qualify for Medicaid or Medicare.
Those patients pay on a sliding scale, and the grant money helps reimburse the clinics for the money patients aren't able to pay, he said.
Without the grant money, the clinic likely will have to cut staffing, which means fewer patients can be seen.
Cassidy said that would mean more people go to emergency rooms for care.
"I hate to say it, but that's the only place left," he said. "It just keeps going back to that vicious cycle -- they wait until they're so sick they have to go to the ER."
Officials from Tri-Cities Community Health were not available for comment on Wednesday.