The latest phase of a project 10 years in the making is coming to fruition, with the new Bullhook Community Health Center facility across from Havre City Hall on the 500 Block of 3rd Street opening next week.
Bullhook CEO Cindy Smith said health center staff members have been moving items from the center's medical location by Northern Montana Hospital and the dental offices in the Atrium Mall into the new building, and training was scheduled for today.
"I just know that my staff has worked so hard," Smith said, adding jokingly, "They are all now certified movers. They have all just done such a good job about banding together and getting it done. We start seeing patients Monday."
She complimented everyone who worked on the project, from community members to the architects and contractors to local businesses where Bullhook purchased supplies.
"They have all just been so good about helping out," she said.
A grand opening for the facility is slated for August.
The building will bring together the center's operations, with medical and counseling services now in a space just east of the hospital leased from Northern Montana Health Care and dental services in the Atrium. The center will operate as a patient-centered medical home, with all care coordinated and the medical providers working together in providing care and treatment.
Filling a need
The project got its start in 2003, when a county health consortium found that the greatest need in the county was increasing care for low-income people and people without insurance.
It started in 2005 as Bullhook Cinic, part of the Hill County Health Department, after receiving a federal grant to help fund its operation.
But the next year, during a period of cuts to programs in the federal government, the clinic staff was notified the second year of its federal grant had been cut. The clinic reorganized, cutting staff and reducing operations including cutting back on outreach.
In December 2006, the clinic applied for new funding through a Federal New Access Community Health Center Grant to reform as a free-standing operation.
In July 2007, the clinic reopened as an independent nonprofit organization, Bullhook Community Health Center.
The center also was working on finding ways to add dental care to its services. The consortium also found that many in the area had difficulty finding dental care due to a shortage of providers and lack of services where people can use programs like Medicaid and the state Childrens Health Insurance Program, now part of Healthy Kids Montana.
Bullhook was passed over in its first application for state grants authorized by the 2007 Legislature to help communities expand their dental care, but in September 2008 received a $185,000 two-year grant.
Bullhook has continued to expand its services, and offers addiction counseling services as well as housing programs like the Montana Asthma Project and the Montana Medicaid Health Improvement Program.
The center's operation is funded primarily through federal grants, patient and insurance payments for services and through community donations.
The center accepts private insurance, private pay, Medicaid, Medicare and Healthy Montana Kids. As a federally funded community health center, it also offers a sliding-fee payment scale depending on the patient's income and ability to pay, with a required payment of $20 a visit for medical and $50 a visit for dental services.
Building a new center
Construction of the new facility opening Monday had a rocky road to completion, with the original plan to use a nearly $5 million federal grant to renovate Donaldson Hall at Montana State University-Northern.
That building, the first completely new building erected at the university, opened in 1936. Originally serving as a dormitory, the building has been shut down for several years due to infrastructure problems including its heating, water and electrical systems.
After Bullhook received its grant to renovate the building and locate its services there, the administration of Northern said that use did not fit into its long-range planning and mission for the campus, and Bullhook had to regroup.
In the fall of 2012, Human Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notified Bullhook that it had approved their plan to use the federal grant instead to buy the property across from City Hall. The plan was to tear down the Brandons Building and the building that formerly housed Heberly Engineering at that site and build the new clinic.
Raising funds continued, with the project eventually coming up with more than $7 million to build the state-of-the-art facility.
Along with the federal grant, funds were found through New Markets Tax Credit financing through Montana Community Development Corp. in Missoula with US Bank investing in that portion, along with Bear Paw Development Corp. providing a brownfield abatement loan to clean up the site and the Great Falls Development Authority provided a bridge loan.
Smith said the center is expected to greatly increase the number of people Bullhook can serve, because of its easier access and consolidation of all its services under one roof as well as adding new, or expanding existing, services.
Part of the expansion depends on federal funding.Smith said funds to expand community medical center services are expected to be added to the federal budget, and Bullhook already has applications in and is waiting to see what funds become available.
Those funds could pay for Bullhook expansions such as adding a pharmacy and increased hours, including possibly opening on Saturday - but, again, she said, that depends on what is funded.
The center will offer some expanded services in areas such as addiction counseling and mental health, telehealth, internal medicine, nutrition and diabetes education, Smith said.
"We hope to fill in a little bit of gaps here and there," she said.