Viewpoint: Health center helps uninsured get medical care

By the Sapphire Community Health Board of Directors for the Ravalli Republic | Jan 24, 2011

As many readers of the Ravalli Republic know by now, Sapphire Community Health is a primary care health center that offers medical services on a sliding fee basis, and is open to anyone in the community, including low-income patients and those without health insurance. No one will be turned away for inability to pay, but will be charged on a sliding scale basis, adjusted to income.

Sapphire Community Health is one of about 1,200 such primary care health centers nationwide, and one of 25 in Montana. Until we opened nearly a year ago, Ravalli County was the largest community in Montana in terms of population without a community health center. The nearest federally qualified health center offering discounted medical services based on ability to pay is Partnership Health Center in Missoula.

Community Health Centers were developed by Congress in the mid-1960s and originated from the same congressional program that gave us Head Start and Jobs Corps. For nearly a half-century, Community Health Centers, enjoying broad bipartisan support, have been providing quality, affordable health care to millions of Americans who might otherwise have nowhere to turn for their most basic health care needs except the local hospital emergency room.

Small businesses make up 84 percent of all Montana businesses, yet only 29 percent have been able to offer health insurance to their employees. In Ravalli County, 15,768 individuals, 40 percent of the population, are living at or below 200 percent of the poverty level. Since we opened our doors in February 2010, we have seen nearly 600 patients. Considering how little advertising we've done, and at barely a year old, that statistic alone speaks volumes about the local need for affordable health care.

Ravalli County taxpayers pay more than $1 million annually for the health insurance costs of county employees. While we agree that county taxpayers should fund this benefit, we also recognize that not all taxpayers can afford their own health insurance policy. We are grateful to the former board of county commissioners for their approval of a one-time contribution of $80,000 to Sapphire Community Health, and we publicly thank them for it. We believe it is a modest investment in the primary health care needs of those taxpayers in our community who fund health insurance for county employees, but cannot afford it for themselves or their families. It's an investment that will pay significant dividends in improved health and a lesser reliance on emergency hospital services. One hundred percent of this county contribution is dedicated solely to patient care.

Finally, we'd like to clarify that we are a non-profit organization, therefore all of our board members are volunteers who receive no compensation for their dedication to what we believe is a valuable service in our community. If you'd like to support us, please consider sponsoring a fundraising event, make a donation or come to Sapphire Community Health at 303 N. Third St. in Hamilton next time you need health care services. We accept private insurance and Medicaid/Medicare. But don't worry if you don't have insurance, because we also have a sliding fee scale based on your ability to pay.

Sapphire Community Health board of directors: Carlotta Grandstaff, Dixie Stark, Jim Morton, James Walker, Jeri Drake, Edith Wark, Karen Tinney, Margaret Ennes, and Patti Nelson