Ciscomani Visits Benson
BENSON — Rep. Juan Ciscomani of Arizona’s 6th Congressional District, swung into Benson on Wednesday, Aug. 23, for multiple stops that included a visit and tour of Benson Family Health Center.
He was elected in 2022 to the newly drawn CD6, becoming the first naturalized American citizen from Mexico elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in Arizona history.
Ciscomani is an active member of two significant committees: Appropriations and Veterans’ Affairs and is co-chair of the Colorado River Caucus and the Hispanic-Serving Institutions Caucus.
Ciscomani’s day started in Willcox where he began with a tour of Northern Cochise Community Hospital facilities, then traveling to Benson Family Health Center for a conference with its leadership staff.
Following introductions, CEO Jonathan Melk presented a short film and narrated Chiricahua’s function in the community.
“Both political parties typically support FQHCs (Federally Qualified Health Centers), both for their own reasons, but it’s lifted tremendous growth of the safety net system, 1,450 in all states, more than 30 million patients,” Melk said.
“There’s 23 in Arizona and we all received these federal grants. And there’s these major requirements. And here they are, we must serve a high needs area, every single square inch of Cochise County is deemed a shortage area by the federal and state government. We must provide comprehensive primary care, we must collaborate with others, we must be patient directed.
“We turn no person away based on ability to pay, which is what makes us so unique. Because no matter who you are, no matter what grade you slept under, if you just released from prison, if you just relocated here as a veteran. You’re a recent immigrant, you are welcome in our doors.”
He told the story of the first Cochise County health center built 27 years ago in the community of Elfrida, a basic structure built out of necessity.
“No windows, no way to see, no heat, but they saw a need in their community,” Melk said. “This gentleman who was a rancher farmer started a clinic in that building as our county’s first and only federally qualified health center. Since that time, we’ve grown to nine clinics throughout our service area. We have nine mobiles, and we do everything as a team. We are one of the largest employers in Cochise County.”
CEO Jonathan Melk, Pediatric Department CMO Darlene Melk, Director of Behavioral Health Tamika Sullivan, Chief of External Affairs & Foundation Executive Director Dennis Walto, and Director of Pharmacy David Merrell, were present.
Benson Food Pantry CEO Najayaah ManyHorses also attended the meeting.
“We receive funds from the state of Arizona, from other nonprofits that donate to us for our work, and we have a grants team that is always looking for ways to fund us,” Melk said. “We have jumped on that congressional delegate and spending right away. We’ve been very fortunate and privileged to receive three different funds, the latest being a mobile mammography unit that will save lives in Cochise County.
“Because less than 40% of women in Cochise County, at the age that they need it, receive mammograms, we are going to change that. And that’s one of the great interventions that we can say actually will save lives.”
“When you meet the health care system, face to face, and it all comes down to this reality; all the policy you think you know, all the role of a safety net that you think you understand, at the end of the day, you just want your loved ones to be doing well, for them to not suffer,” Ciscomani said.
“These are the kinds of events that really bring things back to reality. He’s been a patient for a while. You realize the safety nets that exist in our country and the work of these kinds of clinics.
“People ask me, what do you do for a living? I’m in the people business, we are in the business of people who we take care of, that’s my job, that’s your job, and you do it directly, you keep them healthy. My job is to keep making your job easier and available for the people here that I that I represent in Congress. So, with that, my question is back to you. How can I help you? How can we, as a team, help you carry on your mission?”
One of the answers to Ciscomani’s question regarded the federal 340B Drug Pricing Program, which allows qualifying hospitals and clinics that treat low-income and uninsured communities to buy outpatient prescription drugs at a discount of 25% to 50%.
“The 340B program is a game changer,” Director of Pharmacy David Merrell said. “It really is something that belongs in rural health along with the FQHC model. What we do with the 340B program for example, right now it generates about 20% of our overall revenue that goes into multiple expenses, one of which is running a pharmacy program, running programs such as pharmacy, home delivery, and clinical pharmacy. But it also expands, into this last fiscal year we used it to cover our call center expenses, we used it to cover the expenses of our electronic health record.”
Merrell detailed not only how the program worked but warned, “right now, the 340B program is being attacked, it’s being attacked. I understand that there’s some things that need to be worked out and that’s understood. But I can tell you that, when used properly, the 340B program changes lives, lives in our county. I see this every day.
“I have patients that walk out in tears. They walk out of the pharmacy, and they’re in fear, because they’re like, oh my gosh, I can’t believe I’m getting a 90-day supply of my insulin for just a little over $4.
“So, to put in perspective, in the last year, we’ve saved our sliding fee discount patients, those that need the help the most, we’ve saved them over $4 million on the cost of medications. And that’s only possible because of the 340B program. So, it’s just a wonderful way to increase access to care.”
“The more educated I become on this issue, the more I realize how important it is to you all, and how much we need to protect it so that others don’t take advantage,” Ciscomani said, alluding to large health care networks that exploit 340B.
“I know that nothing in health care is simple, and everything is more complicated, and it needs to be said,” Ciscomani said. “But why can’t we have something that can carve out or give priority to rural areas, and then somehow prevent the bad actors from getting involved?
“So that’s where I’m coming from on that. So, we’ll keep working on the best way to do that. And if you have ideas that we can, you know, protect it, and sometimes the application process may need to become a little heavier.
“So, to make sure that we’re protecting it for places like you, I don’t know what a solution would look like here, exactly, but you have my attention on losing it. I can see the benefit of it.”
After his tour of Benson Health Clinic, Ciscomani had a brief meeting with Benson Mayor Joe Konrad before attending a Fort in Community public forum at Cochise Community College’s Benson Campus.
Konrad said the meeting was brief but productive, focusing on specific topics, beginning with Amtrak funding.
“One of the things that I wanted to discuss was the funding for Amtrak,” Konrad said. “Currently there, you know, it’s in the house, and they’re trying to cut their funding by about a little over $1.5 billion. We have Amtrak come into town here three times a week. We just got the plans approved, and the environmental stuff signed off to start building a big handicap compliant ADA compliant rail platform.
“So that’s, that’s already in the works. And they’re supposed to break ground in the first quarter of next year, that’s going to be located adjacent to our visitor center.”
In July House Republicans proposed cutting nearly two thirds of Amtrack’s 2024 budget, putting it at 2003 funding levels just when it planned a Sunbelt and western states expansion.
The GOP also wanst to eliminate two competitive grant programs likely to primarily benefit rural communities: the $500 million Federal Railroad Administration’s Railroad Crossing Elimination Program, and the $50 million Department of Transportation’s Rebuilding America’s Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) program.
“The last thing we need is to lose Amtrak service,” Konrad said. “So, I had a good talk with him about that, to try to champion, let’s not get crazy with budget cuts for Amtrak, be reasonable, so that they don’t start curtailing service on your side of the country.”
The mayor also spoke to Ciscomani about high-speed load car chases by the Border Patrol that frequently happen through Benson.
“We face them on a daily basis here in town,” Konrad said. “I was really happy to hear that’s one of the things that he’s working on in legislation, where social media sites would have to flag these posts where they’re recruiting kids to be load drivers. So that’s one of the things that he’s working on, legislation to put some controls on that.”