Dixie Stark knows the power of affordable health care.
When the Sapphire Community Health Center temporarily opened its doors in 2010, she knew two people whose lives were saved because they sought out health care.
One woman had a cancer detected when it was very small.
“If it hadn’t been removed, it could have taken her life,” Stark said.
Another man had a heart problem. He received excellent care at the sliding-fee-scale clinic and was stabilized to the point that he could address the malady.
“I really believe in preventative medicine,” Stark said.
So do all 10 of the people who now work at the Hamilton clinic that reopened its doors to the public three weeks ago.
“Everyone who works here left other jobs because they believe in the mission of providing affordable health care,” said Sapphire Community Health CEO Janet Woodburn.
The idea of bringing a sliding-scale medical clinic to the Bitterroot Valley has a long history. Its advocates submitted grant applications for 15 years before finally being on the receiving end of the $707,167 federal grant that made it possible.
Stark, who now serves as vice chair on the center’s board, said people have known about the need for years. At one point, about a third of the patients at a similar federally-funded clinic in Missoula were from the Bitterroot.
The Hamilton-based clinic opened for a year-and-a-half in 2010 using a combination of state and local funding sources. It was forced to close after Congress slashed funding to build new health care facilities in an effort to reduce the national deficit.
During that time, the clinic served more than 900 patients.
“When we opened that first time, some of the people we served had not seen a doctor in seven to 10 years,” Stark said. “When people have diabetes or pre-diabetes and they ignore getting medical attention, they can do serious damage to themselves and make their eventual treatment much more expensive.”
Woodburn said the clinic has purposely had a soft opening without much fanfare. They had a new staff that needed to learn new medical records systems and other procedures.
Even without advertising of any kind, Woodburn said they have already seen 120 patients so far.
“We’re very pleased with that number,” she said. “People are thrilled that we are open.”
The clinic accepts all patients, including those who have no way to pay for the services that are billed on a sliding-scale based on both income and family size.
“No one is ever turned down,” Woodburn said.
The center’s chief nursing officer, Susan Reynolds, is one of two nurse practitioners who see patients. Reynolds worked at another clinic in Hamilton before restarting her practice at Sapphire.
“This is very much needed in the valley,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds has already served several people who have not sought any medical care for years and are now facing multiple health challenges.
The center also offers laboratory work that’s billed on the same sliding scale.
“Some of the patients that I used to see were hesitant in getting any lab work done due to the cost,” Reynolds said. “This service will allow them to get the lab work they need.”
By Jan. 1, the center also will be able to provide some help with prescriptions for those who are struggling with paying the cost of needed medications.
This week, Woodburn said the center began offering a new service to people who are struggling to navigate their way through the process of obtaining insurance, Medicare or Medicaid. That’s a free service that’s available to anyone in the community.
“It’s very complicated to navigate through that system,” Woodburn said. “People can come in and sit down with our staff. It’s all completely free and there’s no obligation to do anything.”
The clinic is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Woodburn said appointments work best, but people can stop by.
The clinic’s new phone number is 541-0032. Online, people can learn more at www.sapphirechc.org
While the health center is targeting low-income people, its services are available to everyone. People wanting to take advantage of the sliding-scale payment system should bring proof of income in the form of a pay stub or tax return.
In her role as executive director of Literacy Bitterroot, Stark hears people talking about the challenges of getting medical care.
“I’ve had so many people come through Literacy Bitterroot tell me that they have insurance for their kids through state programs, but they can’t afford to see a doctor themselves since they don’t have any insurance,” she said.
“I say ‘Yes, you can afford it,’” Stark said. “I let them know they need to get that medical care before their problems become bigger and more expensive.”