Funds available to improve Western Montana health, wellness

By Kevin Maki of NBC Montana | May 2, 2017

HAMILTON, Mont. - Fifteen western Montana counties will benefit from an $80 million endowment from the sale of Missoula's Community Medical Center.

Headwaters Health Foundation will distribute about $4 million a year from that fund to improve health and wellness in western Montana.

On Tuesday, the foundation's chief executive officer, Brenda Solorzano met with health care leaders in Ravalli County.

"We are traveling around western Montana, " she said, "because we want to make sure that the community voice is heard in the process of deciding how we disperse these resources."

The $4 million would be spread throughout those 15 counties.

Solorzano spoke to a filled room at the Ravalli County public health department. Health care leaders hashed out ideas on ways they could use money that would be available in the Bitterroot.

The group said a top priority for the valley is to improve access to health care.

They said there's need for improvements to mental health, substance abuse, suicide prevention and bullying. Many said we are dealing with a lack of affordable housing and homelessness.

Dental services for people who are on Medicaid or have no insurance at all came out as one of the most important health care problems we face.

"When you allow these dental issues to progress, " said Sapphire Community Health's chief executive officer, Janet Woodburn,"they create all kinds of physical problems that affect the entire body."

Everything kept coming back to one word. Prevention. Health care workers said there are so many people in Ravalli County on the edge that they put their health care needs on hold until they become a crisis.

They said it doesn't just affect the very poor, but also people with better incomes, especially those with families who have a hard time making ends meet.

"I would like to take a van around western Montana," said Ravalli County WIC director Teresa Messerman, "to provide services like dental, nutrition education, the dangers of tobacco use and mental health services and put that into one combined unit."

Solorzano will meet with communities all over western Montana to ask the same questions.