Bozeman Daily Chronicle: Montana health centers to see $9.1 million in COVID-19 relief

by Katheryn Houghton

Montana health centers are set to see $9.1 million in the wake of COVID-19, with $759,000 of that set aside for Community Health Partners in Gallatin and Park counties.

The money, announced Monday, is one wave of funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

Buck Taylor, a spokesperson for Community Health Partners, said the money comes on top of roughly $67,000 the center received two weeks ago.

The center is still working to understand how the cash can be used at its Bozeman, Livingston and West Yellowstone sites. Taylor said it seems to include funding for protective equipment, to pay employees and “keep our doors open.”

“With lots of people in our community losing their jobs and health insurance, we believe we’re going to have a surge of patients who may need our services in the not-too-distant future,” Taylor said.

Federally-qualified health centers like Community Health Partners are designed to offer medical, dental and behavioral health services on a sliding fee scale to ensure people can afford to access health care.

He said the first pool of funding tied to the stimulus package was geared toward increasing protective equipment for health providers and new technology. Taylor said that could go toward a new platform for virtual visits with patients.

CHP has scaled back how many people are walking into its clinics as an attempt to limit the potential spread of the virus.

“We’ve not been aware that these funding opportunities were coming, they’ve just sort of dropped in our lap which has been good,” Taylor said.

All three members of Montana’s congressional delegation announced the funding in separate news releases this week. The money will be divided between 14 health centers throughout the state.

Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte said health centers can use the awards to detect and treat COVID-19 patients and to prevent the spread of the disease. He also said clinics can maintain or increase staffing levels to address the public health emergency.

“Montana doctors, nurses and medical staff are heroes who are on the front lines treating patients and protecting our communities amid the COVID-19 outbreak,” Gianforte said.

Democratic Sen. Jon Tester called health centers the backbone of care across Montana. He said there’s an additional $3 million set to go to the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council in Billings.

“It’s absolutely critical that our state’s health providers have the resources they need to keep Montanans healthy and safe,” Tester said.

Republican Sen. Steve Daines said the money includes $616,070 to Marias Healthcare Services Inc. in Shelby, which he described as one of the hardest hit spots in Montana.

The town is in Toole County, a place with fewer than 5,000 people. It had 17 known cases of the disease as of Wednesday.

“This is about getting our health care professionals on the front lines the resources they need to combat the Coronavirus pandemic,” Daines said.

It’s still unclear what federal relief will look like for organizations like hospitals and health departments that are responding to this new virus.

The state of Montana has been promised approximately $1.25 billion from the federal government in response to COVID-19, which is due to arrive later this month.

Marissa Perry, a spokesperson for Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, said the state is still waiting for federal guidance on how to handle that money, which she said is separate from the money the U.S. Health and Human Services will distribute to the health centers.

Matt Kelley, public health officer with the Gallatin City-County Health Department, said local governments are spending what’s needed to respond to the virus without knowing who will cover the cost. He said in the meantime, workers are told to keep a tally of expenses related to the COVID-19 response.

Kelley said some of the actions coming from the area’s incident command team, like investigating cases and quarantine management, will likely be paid back later through federal emergency funds. But there are more complicated expenses, like workers’ time, for which reimbursement is less certain.

“There are a lot of questions about how we pay for this once the dust settles,” Kelley said. “But we’re in the middle of the response and really focused on that response right now.”

He said it could be years before those questions are answered.