Group hopes to open women’s clinic in Hamilton

By RUSS LAWRENCE for the Ravalli Republic | Jan 30, 2014

Sapphire Community Health in Hamilton hopes to open its doors to a Women’s Wellness Clinic, aimed primarily at low-income women but open to all, some time this spring.

The clinic will be staffed by volunteers, and provide reproductive health services, including annual exams, pregnancy tests, cervical cancer screenings, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, and contraceptive services.

Many of the details remain to be worked out, but organizers are ready to start fundraising, according to Heather Liebe, Outreach Coordinator for Sapphire Community Health, a Hamilton non-profit. Their goal is to raise $85,000 to fund the first year’s operation of the clinic, providing services to more than 400 women.

All of the money raised will be used to provide direct services to Ravalli County residents.

The Women’s Wellness Clinic will be housed in the Human Resource Council building at 303 N. Third St. in Hamilton. Sapphire Community Health operated a clinic there until closing its doors in 2011, and much of the infrastructure needed for a clinic still exists, including exam rooms and some support facilities.

Carlotta Grandstaff is chair of the Sapphire Community Health board of directors, and she points out that Hamilton is the largest community in Montana without some form of community health center.

At a meeting following Ravalli County’s rejection of Title X funding for women’s health, Grandstaff and Liebe were both on the agenda to speak about their interests.

“It was a fortuitous meeting,” Grandstaff recalled. Her concerns resided primarily with community-based, affordable health care, and Liebe was motivated to help fill the gap created by the closing of Ravalli County’s Family Planning Clinic. They found themselves to be on the same page, philosophically, and started exploring ways to merge their efforts.

It took two months of discussions, negotiations, and working out details, but they are now ready to present a plan that will offer a range of services, on a sliding-fee-scale. “All will be asked to pay something,” Liebe said, “but nobody will be turned away.”

Liebe feels that clients will feel more invested in their own health if they pay something, even if it’s only a nominal fee of a few dollars. “Our budget doesn’t depend on that, but it’s important that people participate,” Liebe said.

If they don’t have even a small amount to offer, though, they’ll still receive care, she promised.

The clinic will be staffed entirely by volunteers. At this point, Liebe said, they have two obstetricians/gynecologists, two family practice physicians, one internist, a family practice nurse practitioner, and four registered nurses, and they are continuing to recruit.

The clinic will be open for limited hours each week, yet to be determined. The Women’s Wellness Clinic also will encourage male partners to seek health care. The services available at any given time will be governed by the specialties and capabilities of the staff on hand, providing whatever care their license and training allows, while adhering to state and federal regulations and ethical guidelines.

“Our goal is to make sure that there are basic services available to men and women in our community,” Liebe said, with a focus on family planning services.

The clinic is not associated with Ravalli County, nor with any other political body.

“We are a locally funded, community-run women’s wellness clinic,” Liebe said, and a recent message to supporters described the effort as “a politically neutral organization,” providing services to women in need.

“We want everyone to feel like they can be a part of this solution,” the message concludes.

“Health care is every person’s right,” Liebe asserted, and the loss of the county’s Family Planning Clinic imposed a hardship on low-income women. The failure of the Montana Legislature to expand Medicaid coverage was a further blow. Liebe has personal experience with how important those services can be.

“I was a single mom who needed those resources. Now, I feel like I can help, and I’m going to try.”

Grandstaff sees the connection between wellness and productivity, and even happiness. “If you’re sick or injured, you can’t thrive,” she observed.

Both Grandstaff and Liebe see the Women’s Wellness Clinic at Sapphire Community Health as a stopgap measure, and hope to expand it through grants and other funding possibilities, but for now their focus is on getting the doors open this spring.

“It’s been a real learning experience for all of us,” Grandstaff observed. “We’re trying to construct something for which there is no model.

“It’s been a leap of faith for a lot of people, but really, what’s the alternative?” she asked.

For more information or to RSVP for the Feb. 6 fundraiser, call Liebe at (406) 363-8637.