Sapphire Community Health Center

Jim Morton sits in the old Sapphire Community Health Center in Hamilton in April 2010.

SEPP JANNOTTA, Ravalli Republic

HAMILTON – A 15-year effort to bring a sliding-scale medical clinic to the Bitterroot Valley paid off Tuesday morning, with news that Sapphire Community Health Center was selected for a $707,167 federal grant.

“I’ve been in tears this morning,” said Carlotta Grandstaff, a former Ravalli County commissioner who has been involved with the effort since its onset. “We have been applying for this funding for about 15 years. I think we’ve applied six or seven times. This was going to be our last application.”

The funding was part of a $101 million package announced Tuesday by Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell. That funding will be used to create 164 new health centers in 33 states and two U.S. territories.

The state currently has 17 health centers that operate at more than 69 service delivery sites, providing care to about 97,214 patients.

The Hamilton health center was the only new clinic funded in Montana this time around. It is expected to serve about 1,800 patients.

Grandstaff said the need for the center is well established.

The clinic opened for a short time in 2010 using startup money from a combination of state and local sources. At the time, the center’s board expected to receive federal funding, after Congress set aside $11 billion in the federal health care reform bill to expand or build new health care facilities.

Congress opted to cut that amount to $100 million as part of an effort to reduce the national deficit and none of those monies ended up coming to Hamilton.

During the year and a half the center was open, it attracted about 900 patients, Grandstaff said.

“We know there is a huge need out there,” she said.

The clinic operates on a sliding scale based on income. The federal funding makes up about a third of the revenue it requires to operate.

With a growing number of people able to obtain medical insurance through the Affordable Care Act and the state Legislature’s recent decision to expand Medicaid, Grandstaff said the timing couldn’t be more perfect for reopening the clinic.

“We had a lot of charity care the first time,” she said. “When we were open before, Obamacare wasn’t in place and the Legislature wasn’t even discussing expanding Medicaid. ... Coming back with both of those in place will make a huge difference. It could be the difference between surviving and not surviving.”

Under the terms of the grant, the new health center will have 120 days to open its doors.

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District XI Human Resource Council Executive Director Jim Morton serves as secretary for the Sapphire Community Health Center board.

Initially, Morton said the center’s board will attempt to recruit a couple of nurse practitioners while it searches for a new physician. The board will also hire a number of administrative and medical employees.

Morton said Tuesday’s announcement is a tribute to the community’s tenacity.

“It was tough when we had to close the clinic,” Morton said. “It was pretty emotional and a lot of crying when it came time to make that decision. But people regrouped and kept on going.”

While at times it seemed like the board was in “continuous application mode,” Morton said the “really great thing was the Bitterroot really stood behind us. It didn’t matter what people’s politics were. We had just an outpouring of letters of support.

“We kept hearing from people in the community who said, ‘Don’t give up. Don’t give up,’ ” he said. “This is really a tribute to the people in the Bitterroot.”

The clinic will be located in the old Federal Credit Union building at North Third and Cherry streets that is owned by the District XI Human Resource Council.

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