A medical center two years on hiatus is slated to reopen this spring, potentially saving people with needing cancer treatment thousands of miles of travel each year.
Northern Montana Hospital and Benefis Health System of Great Falls announced Thursday that the Hi-Line Sletten Cancer Center will reopen as a joint venture, with the target to open its doors before June.
"We're just so glad to be able to make that announcement ... ," Christen Obresley of Northern Montana Health Care said this morning. "We are in a unique situation in Havre to have a cancer center available to us. We just need to be able to use it."
"I'm very excited about this. This is some of the best news we've had for a long time for the hospital, for the community," she said.
The center initially will have Benefis oncologist Dr. Donald Berdeaux onsite in Havre one day a week, and members of the Northern Montana Hospital medical staff will coordinate care on a daily basis. Telemedicine services also will be provided.
Obresley said the joint venture is recruiting an oncologist for Northern Montana Hospital who would work at the center once hired.
The center opened as a satellite of Benefis' Sletten Cancer Institute of Great Falls in August 2008. Benefis closed the Hi-Line center in March 2012, citing financial issues including low usage and new regulations requiring an oncologist be on site for all radiation treatment.
The oncologist requirement still is in place, although the members of Montana's congressional delegation are working on that.
In 2011, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont ., successfully requested U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to delay enforcing the regulation for a year. He also asked the department to put in place exceptions for rural health care centers, which did not happen.
Tester cited the work of the Hi-Line Sletten Cancer Center in his letter to Sebelius, and said having to drive hundreds of miles to receive care exacerbates health disparities in rural areas.
Havre residents would have to travel more than 225 miles round trip for every cancer treatment in Great Falls, while a Harlem resident would drive more than 300 miles round trip.
A Rudyard resident going to Billings for treatment would drive nearly 600 miles each trip.
Tester and Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan ., and John Thune, R-S.D ., have a new bill pending now to do that again. That bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent Feb. 10, and, along with a companion bill in the House by Reps. Steve Daines, R-Mont ., Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan ., and Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan ., has been referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Health.
Tester communications director Marneé Banks said this morning that the only holdup now is waiting for the House subcommittee to take action on the bill.
Daines said Thursday that the Hi-Line center provides critical services to this region.
"I'm glad to see that an agreement has been reached to reopen this facility," he said. "I will continue working toward policies that recognize the unique needs facing Montana's rural communities and ensure that our rural health centers have the flexibility they need to serve the people of our state."
Obresley said Northern and Benefis have been working since the center closed to find a way to reopen it. The two entities now are working in a joint venture, with a six-member board comprising three members from Northern and three from Benefis providing oversight.
She said the other main issue in its closing - the financial issues - will be dealt with by the partnership.
Until the center, which treated 36 people in 2011, has enough patients to pay for itself, Benefis and Northern are prepared to make up shortfalls in revenue, she said.
"Both entities are committed, and their boards of trustees, that we will keep operating ... ," she said. "We're in it for the long haul."