Community Health clinics push for federal funding reauthorization

By Kevin Maki of NBC Montana | February 6, 2018

HAMILTON, Mont. — 

Community health centers in Montana are in a "red alert" action.

It's a time set aside to push Congress to reauthorize the Community Health Center Fund, a program that helps support 17 community health centers in Montana.

Health centers serve more than 100,000 Montanans or about 10 percent of our population. The clinics provide health care to insured and uninsured patients.

Kawelo Carlos works in records and reception at Sapphire Community Health Center in Hamilton. He's insured. But he remembers when he didn't have insurance several years ago when he was a college student, working part-time jobs as he and his wife worked to support their four children.

Now at his job at Sapphire he sees patients like that come in.

"They come in and they're worried about money," he said. "The clinic offers some relief from that because of some of the things we can do."

Sapphire provides outpatient primary care, preventive medicine, vaccinations, lab services and screenings. It treats acute and chronic illness and offers mental health care.

Congress has funded the program since 1965. If it doesn't this time Sapphire could lose 50 percent of its funding by May.

"We would not be able to serve patients who did not have insurance, Medicaid or Medicare," said chief executive officer Janet Woodburn.

Other Montana community health centers face cuts or even closure sooner than Sapphire.

As in much of rural Montana the Bitterroot is considered to have an under-served population that has a high demand for affordable health care.

Health workers say without the community health centers many of these people wouldn't go to the doctor at all.

"We have approximately 2,000 patients right now," said Woodburn. "We get about six or eight new patients every day."

She said the clinic treats patients in a holistic manner, by treating the body and mind.

Mental health services play an important role.

Sapphire serves homeless people and a lot of children. There's family counseling.

Chief operating officer Skip Rosenthal said it's kind of a one-stop shop.

The clinic does refer patients to other providers. But often patients can receive a host of services in one building.

"Otherwise they might be dealing with five or six different agencies," said Rosenthal. "And they might not follow through and get what they need."

Woodburn said about 50 percent of Sapphire Community Center's patients rely on the federal funding for health care.