POLSON - The new three-story, 23,000-square-foot Tribal Health Clinic the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes built here is impressive, perhaps most so to those familiar with the little 1,800-square-foot facility it replaced.
"You could fit the old building in the waiting room of this one," Kevin Howlett, director of CSKT's Health Department, said Wednesday as the tribes opened the building up to tours for the afternoon.
"This facility is more than just a building," Howlett went on. "It's a statement to the enduring confidence we have as a tribe in working toward our own destiny. Health care is a critical part of that."
Where once the tribes offered a pharmacy and some dental services, they now can provide full outpatient medical services.
The pharmacy and dental services have been doubled, and they've added the medical clinic with X-ray machines and exam rooms, a physical therapy department, an optometrist and mobile MRI and mammography equipment.
It's all representative, Howlett said, of a significant change in how the tribes here view health care.
"For many, many years we provided health care by buying it from the private sector," Howlett explained. "That's not illogical - provided you have unlimited resources."
Why, Howlett asked, send revenue out the door that the tribes could be bringing in?
"Health care is customer-driven, but it's also a business that happens to be the biggest business in this country," he said. "The Salish and Kootenai people are not antiques stuck in time. We're committed to the future, to building our capacity to respond to modern issues, including health care."
This $2.7 million facility joins tribal clinics in Arlee, St. Ignatius, Ronan and Elmo.
And revenue generated by those funded this.
"Before we turned one shovel of dirt, this building was paid for," Howlett said, through monies brought in to the tribes from Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance payments for health services offered at the other clinics.
Another $1 million in staff was added with the opening of the new clinic - where Howlett is in the process of hiring a second physician - it too paid for from revenues generated through the other clinics.
The federal Indian Health Service contributed $400,000 to the purchase of $1 million in new equipment for the clinic.
Indians eligible for tribal health care are free to select any provider, and so far, Howlett said, 40 percent of the 11,000 people eligible have chosen to make CSKT their primary provider.
Howlett's department now employs 146 people and has an operating budget of $15 million annually, a figure that does not include Medicare or Medicaid payments.
The new clinic in Polson has been seeing patients since it opened in April following a traditional blessing
by Salish and Kootenai elders.
Wednesday afternoon's open house, Howlett said, was simply a chance for community members curious about what was inside the big new building in downtown Polson to see for themselves.
Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at (406) 319-2117 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.