Tester’s fight for rural health pays dividends for Havre

Senator’s efforts keep radiation treatment available in north-central Montana

(HELENA, Mont.) – Senator Jon Tester is making sure that life-saving radiation treatment remains available in Havre for folks fighting cancer across north-central Montana.

Tester recently received good news from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who responded to Tester’s concern about a rule requiring a radiation oncologist to be on-site for treatments at rural locations like Havre, where a satellite clinic provides critical care.  Sebelius told Tester further consideration would examine how the change could affect rural health care before moving forward.

“In rural areas such as Montana, clinics operate as satellites for fully staffed cancer centers in order to provide care in regions where having a radiation oncologist on-site is not feasible,” Tester wrote Sebelius.  “If patients needing radiation therapy can’t continue to use these satellite clinics, it will further exacerbate health disparities that are already present.”

Tester added that if cancer patients couldn’t continue using the clinic in Havre, they would have to travel 115 miles each way to Great Falls.  Tester called reasonable access “a matter of life and death in Montana,” where the disease is the leading cause of death. 

Sebelius made another important concession to Tester by agreeing to name two representatives of small, rural hospitals and two representatives from critical access hospitals to the panel reviewing the guidelines for care.

In Havre, the Benefis Sletten Hi-Line Cancer Center provided 36 patients with radiation therapy in 2011.  Under the supervision of a radiation oncologist located in Great Falls, a radiation therapist administered the prescribed treatments, allowing folks across the Hi-Line to receive equal access to the life-saving treatment closer to home. 

“Those of us along the Hi-line appreciate Senator Tester’s support to ensure that we can continue providing critically needed services to our friends and neighbors in rural Montana,” said David Henry, President and CEO of Northern Montana Hospital.  “His willingness to help maintain full service at the Hi-Line Sletten Cancer Center is critical for maintaining access to complete cancer treatment on the Hi-Line.”

Tester, who helped recognize May 2011 as “National Cancer Research Month,” is a staunch advocate not only for fair access to cancer treatment, but also for raising awareness of breast cancer – the number one cause of cancer-related death for Montana women.

Tester’s letter to Secretary Sebelius is available online HERE.

Sebelius’ response to Tester is available online HERE.