Money Woes Shut Down Health Clinic

By Beacon Staff

The Planned Parenthood office in Kalispell will see its last patient in November after only four years in the valley, officials at the statewide organization announced last week.

Stacy James, president and chief executive officer for Planned Parenthood of Montana, said the closure is an unfortunate consequence of the local economy.

“It has to do with the tough economy,” James said. “We cover a very big state and it’s a challenge.”

The Flathead Valley has been hit particularly hard by the recession and its residents continue to endure some of the highest unemployment rates in the state. With a high number of job losses comes a loss of benefits and the ability to pay for health care.

James said the clinic served more than 1,500 patients last year and probably had the same amount this year, but more patients were unable to pay for services. The clinic works on a sliding fee scale, meaning that payment for services is based on income levels.

Clinic Manager Jen Premo, who took over in March, said the closure did not surprise the five employees, but it is still unfortunate.

“In a word, I’d say (I’m) ‘disappointed,’” Premo said.

The clinic employees have begun the arduous task of inventorying every item in the facility, from chairs and desks to medical instruments. These items will be sorted and redistributed at other Planned Parenthood locations across the state. Premo said at least one employee will transfer to Missoula.

Patients were made aware of the closure early on, Premo said, and the clinic has made a referral list. Some patients have asked for their records to be transferred to specific doctors in the valley.

The announcement of the clinic’s closing has elicited a variety of responses from the Kalispell community, ranging between excitement from abortion opponents and leaving others with a sense that the valley is losing a valuable resource.

Members of Kalispell 40 Days for Life, a local anti-abortion protest group, praised the news. The group has protested the Planned Parenthood clinic before, notably during last spring when they stood outside the clinic for 24 hours a day for 40 days.

The group is currently protesting another clinic in Kalispell. Karen Trierweiler, the group’s campaign director, said she and fellow members are praying that the Planned Parenthood employees will find new work, but is still thrilled the clinic is closing.

“We’re pretty excited about the news,” Trierweiler said.

Wendy Doely, executive director for the Flathead Community Health Center, said patients can come to the clinic for physical exams and contraceptive needs. She said Planned Parenthood gave the county clinic advanced notice about the closure.

“In any community, Planned Parenthood provides a wonderful resource, but it’s a tough economic climate,” Doely said. “We certainly support the work they’ve done in the community.”

Federally funded reproductive health and family planning services will still be available at the Flathead City-County Health Department, as it and Planned Parenthood are separate entities.

The state Planned Parenthood program is partially funded through state and federal Title X grants, allowing low-income patients to pay little or nothing for services. These services include physical exams for women and men, treatment and tests for sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy tests and emergency contraception. However, since federal regulations stipulate that each county can only have one Title X facility, and the Flathead City-County Health Department already had the designation before Planned Parenthood arrived. Patients paid for services at cost, Planned Parenthood officials said, but rates were comparable to other medical clinics.

Another major source of funding is from personal donations, which have been down significantly this year, James said.

Due to the recession, many of the clinic’s patients have also switched over to free clinics run through government services, James said. She conceded that it makes sense for people to gravitate toward the lowest cost in health care.

James said Planned Parenthood still plans on keeping a presence in the Flathead and will have a travel fund for those patients who want provider choices. Anyone interested can call 1-888-867-8961.

Other Planned Parenthood clinics are located in Helena, Missoula, Billings and Great Falls, along with the “Without Walls” program, which supports areas with little access to pharmacies.

Addendum: Changes were made in the story to reflect the payment system at the Kalispell Planned Parenthood Clinic.