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U.S. grants $28.8 million to community health centers

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration said it will spend $28.8 million on grants to create new community health center sites in 23 U.S. states and Puerto Rico.

The grants, announced on Tuesday, are part of $11 billion promised for new and existing health care centers over the next five years. The money, which was promised in last year's law which overhauled the U.S. healthcare system, is intended to help pay for new sites where people can get medical services regardless of their ability to pay.

Such healthcare centers serve 19.5 million patients, about 40 percent of whom have no health insurance.

The centers often include clinics in rural and urban areas and treat people who live far from hospitals, as well as poor people, who pay varying fees depending on how much money they make. Ethnic and minority groups make up almost two-thirds of the centers' patients.

The centers play a big role in public health by taking stress off emergency rooms in big state-funded hospitals that many people see as a last resort for the uninsured.

"They are providing care that is good or better than the rest of the healthcare system, while keeping down the costs," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

The $28.8 million grant will expand the centers' outreach to about 286,000 patients.

Community health centers suffered a blow earlier this year when Congress slashed their funding 27.5 percent as part of the budget deal.

Accounting for those cuts, 2011 fiscal year funding surpasses last year's, running up to $2.5 billion, said Health Resources and Services administrator Mary Wakefield.

Of that, about $1 billion comes from the healthcare overhaul funding and another $1.5 billion from regular appropriations, she said.

The HHS received 810 applications for the grants announced on Tuesday. Of the 67 winners, 10 applicants plan to establish new community centers, while others plan to add new service sites to existing centers.

In October 2010, the Obama administration allocated the first $727 million to help fix up community health centers across the country. The money was to go to 143 centers.

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