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Sheridan, Montana

Community Health Center helps those in need in Madison County
By Perry Backus of The Montana Standard
March 1, 2005

Dr. Sarah Googe has known for years that some of her patients were struggling to make ends meet.

As a longtime physician in the Ruby Valley, Googe has always reached out to help whoever she could. Sometimes that meant some thin paychecks at the end of the month.

But that's all changed now.

Googe has joined forces with the Butte Community Health Center to bring affordable health care to the Ruby Valley and beyond. By doing that, Googe is now assured of a steady paycheck and her growing list of patients know they'll be able to see a doctor before their ailments become life threatening.

"When people can't afford health insurance, they sometimes wait until they're really sick to see a doctor," said Cindy Stergar, executive director of Butte's Community Health Center. "That can mean a trip to the hospital, where the costs go up dramatically." Community Health Centers, like Googe's in Sheridan, help break that cycle.

Federally qualified Community Health Centers target patients who live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that amounts to annual income of $18,850 or less.

The median household income in Beaverhead County in 1998 was $20,925. Madison County's median household income is a bit higher $22,066.

The Community Health Centers are required to accept anyone who comes through the door, and the charges are based on a sliding fee schedule depending on a family's income. Patients can be charged full price for the services if their income is high enough or they have medical insurance.

Community Health Centers in Sheridan and Dillon operate under the umbrella of the Butte center.

Googe said there were always a few people who just couldn't pay before she was associated with the Community Health Center. Most would always try to pay some portion of their bills.

"Now that they're coming in and telling us what their income is, I find myself wondering how they were able to do it," she said. "There are a lot more people out there really struggling than I knew." "There are a lot of people who pleased to be able to pay for their health care under this program," said Googe. "I'm still seeing a lot of the same people that I've always seen." Association with the Community Health Center has a number of benefits for patients. For instance, Googe said she's been able to tap into free drug programs for some low income patients using the expertise developed in Butte.

Some patients also qualify for dental care.

"I haven't seen a downside with this yet," she said.

Googe said she's continuing to work with the hospital, although those are costs that can't be absorbed through the Community Health Center program.

The association brings stability to Googe's office, which employs five other people. It also allows Googe to take some well deserved time off without the worry that's she might miss a patient in need.

"I have all the same staff that I had before," she said.

In addition, Dayna Leavens, a certified pediatric nurse practitioner, works in the office every week.

Stergar said the Community Health Center program has been able to help Googe by computerizing her office, helping her transcribe notes and coming up with some means of backup when she has to be out of the office.

"The thing about Sarah is that if she had 50 people who showed up in a single day, she'd still see every single one," said Stergar. "That's just who she is. Sarah is one of those few docs who are always ready to say I'm here for this community.'" Googe's decision to join the Community Health Center program will help ensure she's able to stay in Sheridan.

Stergar said the program also purchased McAlear Pharmacy in Twin Bridges in September. Its longtime owner, DeWayne McAlear was ready to retire after nearly 40 years and there was a possibility the pharmacy n the only one left in the Ruby Valley n might have closed.

"We bought it just keep a pharmacy in the valley," said Stergar. "Without it being there, people were going to have to travel 40 to 60 miles to get their medications. If they're already can't afford to pay for health care, they might now have been able to make that trip." "We wanted to make sure that they would be able to get their medications," she said.

Copyright Perry Backus and the Montana Standard, reproduced by permission.


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