More than 16,000 individuals in Missoula and surrounding rural counties rely on Partnership Health Center for medical, dental, pharmacy, behavioral health and other services. But the center could have difficulty meeting those needs if Congress doesn’t authorize the continuation of key federal programs that support community health centers around the nation.

“Every day, we respond to the challenges working Americans face as they attempt to afford housing, health care, child care and food on a budget that has not kept pace with the costs of living,” said Laurie Francis, executive director of Partnership Health Center. “Last year, we served 16,092 patients with over 66,000 total visits.”

Partnership Health Center, a division of the Missoula City-County Health Department, is a nonprofit community health care facility. With its main clinic located at 401 Railroad St. W., in the old Creamery Building, the center provides affordable health care at a sliding-scale cost, based on family size and income, so that nobody is turned away due to an inability to pay.

Montana ranks 44th in the nation for percentage of population not covered by health care, according to the Health Department. Nineteen percent of the state’s total population, and 22 percent of Missoula’s population, is uninsured. It’s closer to 30 percent in some Montana rural communities.

Missoula County was federally designated as a Medically Underserved Area in 1992, and a Dental Health Professions Shortage Area in 2000.

According to the Partnership Health Center, 47 percent of their patients report living at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level (living on less than $12,140 annual income for individuals, and less than $25,100 for a family of four), and 79 percent live on twice that amount, qualifying for medical, dental and behavioral health service at discounted costs.

More than 1,000 of their patients identify as homeless, and can receive medical care five days a week and behavioral health care two days a week at their clinic in the Poverello Center on West Broadway, downtown Missoula.

“All comers are welcome at any of our sites, regardless of housing status, ability to pay, citizenship, language or skin color,” Francis said. “We believe in the intrinsic value of all humans, and know health care to be their right. We have over 200 staff members who offer love and respect, towards every patient, every time.”

In addition to providing comprehensive and affordable health care to individuals and families, the center also advocates public policies that will improve health and wellbeing and poverty, and gets involved in related issues such as poverty, environmental health and work-related conditions.

Originally called Partners for Access Pilot Project, Partnership Health Center began in 1989 as a cooperative effort by the Missoula County Health Department, private physicians, St. Patrick Hospital, Community Center, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the U.S. Bureau of Primary Health Care.

Although it receives financial support from numerous individuals, local agencies, organizations and businesses -- including the city of Missoula, United Way of Missoula County, the Dennis Washington Foundation, Holy Spirit Parish, University of Montana and the Network of Local Social Service Agencies – the Partnership Health Center earned a federal grant and became a Federally Qualified Health Center in 1992, making it eligible for continued federal funding.

Federal funding comes from the federal Community Health Center Fund, part of the national Health Service Program that falls under Section 330 of the Public Health Services Act of 1944, supporting Community Health Centers throughout the nation. In 2018, Congress boosted the program’s funds from $1.5 billion to $1.6 billion, and extended that through Fiscal Year 2019, which ends Sept. 30.

“Our congressional delegation has been strong supporters of the community health center program,” Francis said. “The program has long enjoyed bipartisan, congressional support, and we are counting on Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines, and Representative Greg Gianforte, to help prevent the expiration of our funding at the end of this month. We encourage everyone to call our congressional delegation and express their support for and continued funding of the Partnership Health Center, and all Community Health Centers across the country.”