Discussions about the separation of the Flathead Community Health Center from the Flathead City-County Health Department (FCCHD) have been gathering steam over the last year, despite getting hampered by the novel coronavirus.
On June 1, the health center will formally exit from the umbrella of county control, rebranded as the Greater Valley Health Center.
The federally qualified health center was established in 2007 to provide services to medically underserved communities in the Flathead Valley. The center recently became an independent, nonprofit health center, but continued to be nested within the Flathead County governing structure as part of the FCCHD.
“This has been a long time coming,” Flathead County Health Officer Joe Russell told the county commissioners at their May 25 meeting, where the final paperwork was signed. “I have a lot of confidence in Mary Sterhan — she comes with enough medical clout in this community that she’ll do fine, and we’ll be there in case.”
Greater Valley Health Center (GVHC) CEO Mary Sterhan said progress was moving forward quickly until the pandemic hit.
“Just over a year ago the county was evaluating programs and their areas of focus,” Sterhan said. “It is a bit of an anomaly to have a health clinic as part of county government and I think they were recognizing that. It’s such a different type of business than any other part of county operation.”
The health center was founded during Russell’s first tenure as county health officer, and the operating structure allowed the health center and health department to serve as co-applicants for a Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) grant, which has served as funding for the health center since its early days.
The county has served as the HR, IT and finance departments for the health center over the years, although the center has retained its own board of directors and has been self-supporting in all other capacities.
Even though GVHC is moving to full independence from the county, there isn’t going to be much of an operational transition, according to Sterhan.
“It will be an improvement for us managing our own HR — there are lots of issues regarding human resources that no other county department deals with,” she said. “And having our own person devoted to managing our tech is key because we live or die by electronic medical records. Administratively we’re really gaining a lot of flexibility.”
Sterhan said flexibility for a community health center is key, especially given a year like 2020 when the pandemic forced many employees to quickly pivot roles and make swift changes to services when necessary.
With the separation, GVHC will now be the sole recipient of the HRSA grant. The center currently operates on a mostly grant funded annual budget of $6 million.
In addition, as part of the separation deal with the county, GVHC will continue to lease its same space on First Avenue West for the Kalispell clinic. The agreement signed last week is a five-year lease with one renewal option, with a first-year cost of $176,975.50.
The health center provides primary medical care, dental, behavioral health and addiction services, and can aid individuals with insurance enrollment or any other health-related needs.
Between the primary location in Kalispell, a satellite clinic in Hungry Horse and two school clinics, the health center serves roughly 8,000 county residents. As part of its mission, it offers a sliding-fee schedule to work with patients who have income challenges, both for in-house care and at local pharmacies.
“No matter what, we should be able to put together something for a patient in need,” Sterhan said. “We want to meet our mission to serve the underserved and the uninsured population in the community.”
For more information about the Greater Valley Health Center, call (406) 607-4900.