A $450,000 infusion of cash will fuel the expansion of a program in Billings that trains family practice physicians who hopefully will remain in the state.

The grant, made possible through the Affordable Care Act, will allow the Montana Family Residency Program to train three additional residents in family practice medicine. The program will now feature eight positions each year in a three-year curriculum with a total of 24 slots when full.

John Felton, president and CEO of RiverStone Health, which houses the residency program, said the grant is “great news.”

“The most important part of all this is that historically 73 percent of our graduates go on to practice medicine right here in Montana, where rural areas need family physicians who provide a broad scope of practice to the community.”

The Montana Family Residency Program has placed 70 percent of its graduates in the state since it began in 1995, with 72 percent of them practicing in rural and underserved areas. The program attracts residents from throughout the country.

With an aging population and the changes imminent in health care, Montanans need access to primary care doctors such as family physicians. Lack of access to primary care was identified as the most pressing health care need in a 2011 assessment that Billings Clinic, St. Vincent Healthcare and RiverStone Health conducted.

More than 20,000 Montanans live in counties without a primary-care physician, according to MHA — An Association of Montana Health Care Providers. Ten counties in the state have no physician at all. And, at least 52 of the state’s 56 counties are federally designated primary-care physician shortage areas.

Felton received word of the financial award from U.S. Democratic Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester.

“This grant is a win for good-paying jobs and healthy families,” Baucus said. “We know that folks who see a regular family doctor are more likely to get better care over the long-run, which keeps them out of the emergency room and saves money for everyone. But that can be tough to do when there just aren’t enough doctors to go around. Training more doctors in Montana will help us keep more doctors in Montana, and that’s what this grant is all about.”

One of the best ways to improve family health care in Montana is to train more doctors and get them to practice in the state, Tester said. “This award will encourage young doctors to hone their skills and stay in Montana so that more Montanans get the high-quality care they need.”

The grant is part of the Teaching Health Center grant program created under the Affordable Care Act to help address the nationwide shortage of family medicine physicians. The grant program will provide $230 million nationwide to train doctors in rural and community-based setting like the Community Health Center at RiverStone Health.

A residency typically is the final step in 11 years of post-secondary training. A high school graduate planning to become a physician needs four years of college for a bachelor’s degree, four years of medical school and then three more years as a resident under another doctor’s guidance.

The Montana Family Residency program prepares the physician to care for patients of all ages in their community and provide the broadest range of services. The program has received state funding since it began, with the state Legislature anticipating that at least 50 percent of its graduates would remain in the state to practice.

The program, started in 1995, is a nonprofit consortium of RiverStone Health, St. Vincent Healthcare and Billings Clinic.

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