By Michael Howell of the Bitterroot Star | June 6, 2017
No one is turned away at the Sapphire Community Health clinic in Hamilton for inability to pay and, thanks to a grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), our local Community Health Center will continue to offer its valuable services to Bitterroot community members for another three years. Community Health Centers are funded through a combination of federal and local grants and payments from patients and insurance companies and must compete once every three years for federal grant funding. The latest grant to Sapphire Community Health will provide $704,000 annually over the next three years to assist patients who need help paying for a portion of their health care costs.
According to information provided by the Montana Primary Care Association, Sapphire Community Health has a service area harboring a population of 26,335 people, 45.7% of whom live at or below 200% of Federal Poverty Guidelines, establishing a target population of 12,022 low-income residents. The health center was closed in 2011 due to financial constraints but re-opened in September 2014 with enough federal funding from HRSA to keep the doors open for two years and since then has been growing at an astounding rate.
In calendar year 2015, the health center served 257 patients. By November 2016, that number had grown to 1,396. According to Chief Executive Officer Janet Woodburn, the center is currently serving about 1,700 patients and that number is expected to grow to about 1,861 by the end of 2018.
In 2015, the staff consisted of one half-time nurse practitioner and a one-third time medical support staff. The center now employs an M.D. as Medical Director, two nurse practitioners (and is looking to hire a third), and one psychiatric nurse practitioner (and is looking to hire a second).
Besides offering primary medical services to people of all ages and acute care for minor illnesses and injuries, the center also offers well child visits, immunizations and vaccines as well as screening for cancer, communicable diseases and cholesterol levels. It offers women’s care including gynecological and breast care, colorectal screening and ongoing care for chronic illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension. It offers social service information and laboratory services as well as free assistance applying for Marketplace Health Insurance and Medicaid. Rates are based on the individual’s or family’s ability to pay. A sliding fee payment schedule is used based on income and number of people living in the household.
With Irene Walters, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, on board and another position in the works, the health center is able to prescribe psychotropic medications and, according to Woodburn, the clinic is currently applying for a federal grant that could fund counseling to go along with the medications.
The clinic is also considering expanding into the realm of dental care. A recent grant to do just that was declined.
“They felt like we needed a little more time to develop our other basic medical services in the face of the dramatic growth in patient numbers that we are experiencing,” said Woodburn.
Libbi Sleath, Quality Improvement Specialist at the center, said they are working hard right now on achieving a quality accreditation rating from Patient-Centered Medical Home, a national accreditation firm, and hope to get their application for accreditation submitted by September.
Woodburn said that the clinic staff was extremely excited about receiving the federal grant to fund three more years of operations. She said that Montana Senators Steve Daines and Jon Tester have both been very supportive of the clinic and the federal health center program that currently funds 17 health centers in the state.
“The support has been bipartisan and very strong,” said Woodburn. “We are very appreciative of that.”
Sleath said that providing medical services to people who otherwise would not be able to afford them was very rewarding. She said she has watched as SHC staffer Kate Dugan has helped people obtain coverage to help with their payments.
“They come in and they look encumbered,” said Sleath. “Then, as they talk with Kate, you can see them physically change as they begin to realize that they will be able to get the care they need. Many of them have been putting off treatment for years because they couldn’t afford it.”
Woodburn said that she could not hope for a more dedicated staff and they were all thrilled at receiving the latest funding grant.
“It’s all for a great purpose,” said Woodburn.
The Sapphire Community Health clinic is located at 316 North 3rd Street, Hamilton and is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For information or to make an appointment call 541-0032.