The nation’s community health centers — Southwest Montana Community Health Center in Butte among them — grew out of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s with a focus on providing healthcare to people in medically underserved inner city and rural areas. Those crafting policy to create health centers — Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was one of them — based their work on a model in South Africa, where community-based systems were greatly improving the health of that country’s poorest citizens.
Fast-forward to today, as the nation’s health centers continue to provide care to anyone who seeks it. “Health centers see everyone regardless of ability to pay or insurance status,” according to a fact sheet issued by the National Association of Community Health Centers. (Insured people can obtain care at community health centers as well — as they were growing up, I sought care for my daughters at Southwest Montana Community Health Center, because the clinic was — and still is — very well run, and featured a pediatrician — and still does — who dealt with my kids with honesty and compassion — my kids were never afraid to go to the doctor.)
“Health centers are consumer-driven and patient-centered organizations that serve as a comprehensive and cost-effective primary healthcare option for America’s most underserved communities,” says the fact sheet. Yep, community health centers rock, and because of that, they traditionally have enjoyed bipartisan support in Washington, D.C. But for whatever reason — my opinion is that we currently have a fractured policy-making system in D.C. — funding for community health centers was not included in a Continuing Resolution authorized recently that will keep the federal government running through Feb. 8. The move leaves community health centers without funding certainty.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is among the Democratic senators who voted against the Continuing Resolution. Lack of funding for community health centers “is one of the main reasons (he) voted no,” Erik Nyland, Tester’s regional director based in Butte, emailed me last week. A news release issued by Tester’s office following authorization of the Continuing Resolution had this quote from the senator: “I am confident that federal policy-makers will eventually provide long-term funding for these centers, because of their incredible value to our communities.”
Boy howdy. In 2016, Montana’s community health centers saw 107,455 patients for behavioral health, 74,400 for preventive services and 72,933 for chronic conditions. Southwest Montana Community Health Center has a medical clinic, dental clinic and pharmacy in Butte, a medical clinic and dental clinic in Dillon, and a pharmacy in Sheridan. In 2017, Southwest Montana Community Health Center saw 13,063 patients in 58,000 visits. An estimated 77 percent of this patient population lives below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (with almost 47 percent living below 100 percent of the federal poverty level — the very poor.)
Southwest Montana Community Health Center is a teaching site, and a variety of students — those studying to be physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists, nurses, medical assistants — receive training at the clinic. The health center also deploys a Healthcare for the Homeless program, providing services to the homeless off-site and on-site. This program has been a key partner in our community’s approach to coordinating entry to services, including housing, to homeless individuals, and diverting people from becoming homeless.
Southwest Montana Community Health Center, providing services for more than 30 years, is among Butte-Silver Bow’s top eight private employers, with a staff of more than 140 people – physicians, dentists, nurses, care managers, behavioral health providers and support personnel. The clinic has an annual payroll of $6.6 million.
It is an annual federal grant through the Health Resources & Services Administration that allows Southwest Montana Community Health Center, and all health centers, to provide care on a sliding fee schedule, so valuable to those with low incomes and those who are under-insured or uninsured.
Community health centers are an integral part of the U.S. healthcare delivery system, and Southwest Montana Community Health Center is integral as well to local healthcare delivery. Like Sen. Tester, I am confident that federal policy-makers will continue their bipartisan support for these health centers, recognizing their incredible value to our communities and our lives.