HELENA — At the end of this week, PureView Health Center will officially separate from Lewis and Clark County, after more than 25 years.
The clinic began operations in 1994, as the Cooperative Health Center. Since then, Lewis and Clark County filed for the federal grant that allowed the center to operate, then contracted with the center to provide health services.
Last June, PureView’s board voted to become a fully independent nonprofit. In September, the Lewis and Clark County Commission approved a separation agreement that will take effect Sunday, March 1.
Jill Steeley, PureView’s executive director, said it has taken a lot of preparation to be ready for the transition.
“It’s been a lot of work,” she said. “It’s essentially like starting a business with 70 people already in place.”
Staff will now become employees of PureView, instead of the county. Steeley said they have had to set up things like new accounting and human resource systems, a 401(k) plan and a pay plan.
Leaders say the changes shouldn’t affect the people who get their care from PureView.
“We will still have our four sites; we’ll provide all of our services,” Steeley said. “To the patient, it should be pretty seamless.”
PureView provides a variety of services, including primary care, dental care, behavioral health, a pharmacy, insurance enrollment and case management. It serves about 7,000 patients a year, including many with lower incomes.
“As a federally qualified health center, our mission is that everyone have access to affordable quality health care,” said Steeley.
The federal grant provides one of PureView’s primary funding sources. This year, for the first time, the organization applied for and received the grant independently.
PureView now operates a main Helena clinic on 9th Avenue, an East Helena clinic at Prickly Pear Elementary School, the Parker Medical Center in Lincoln and a site at God’s Love shelter to provide health care for the homeless population. Steeley said she has been looking at the possibility of making it a fully independent nonprofit for about three years.
“It just became apparent that we could really grow and expand our services in a more efficient way if we were not part of the county,” she said.
Steeley said being outside the county’s employee pay matrix will also allow PureView to offer more competitive salaries, so they will be better able to recruit and retain care providers.
“Now we are able to do our own salary surveys and make sure that we are an attractive employer in the health care field,” she said.
PureView has been under a hiring freeze through the county for the last few months. Steeley said they have already begun interviewing to fill some vacant positions, and that they hope to make their first hires soon after March 1.
There will be a few minor changes for PureView after the separation. As of March 1, the main phone number will remain (406) 457-0000, but several other numbers will change:
· Dental Clinic: (406) 500-2122
· East Helena Clinic: (406) 500-2121
· Pharmacy: (406) 500-2080
· God’s Love Clinic: (406) 500-2070
PureView is also looking ahead to future plans. Next summer, they plan to open a new clinic in downtown Helena as part of a planned multi-use development on Last Chance Gulch. Steeley said they were initially looking for a larger space to host their HealthCare for the Homeless program, then decided to offer their other services there as well. The current Helena clinic will also remain open.
Steeley said they are grateful for the help Lewis and Clark County has provided them over the years, but that they are looking forward to completing the final transition.
“It does allow us to look into the future and think about how we want to grow and expand our services and offer really quality health care to our community,” she said.
PureView’s official separation will not mean the end of an ongoing legal dispute that grew out of it. Lewis and Clark County and Montana’s public employee retirement system are involved in legal action over unfunded pension liabilities related to the health center’s staff.
Like other county employees, PureView staff are currently part of the Public Employees’ Retirement System. Employees and the county both make contributions toward their future pension benefits. However, once PureView becomes independent, its employees will no longer be eligible for the PERS.
The Montana Public Employee Retirement Administration argues that large number of employees leaving the system creates a significant unfunded liability. They have demanded that Lewis and Clark County make a payment to cover that liability – estimated at around $5 million – to avoid putting an unfair additional burden on the other agencies that are part of the system. The county, in turn, has challenged MPERA’s authority to make that demand.
MPERA has asked the Montana Supreme Court to hear the legal dispute. Justices are currently deciding whether to grant that request.
Steeley said PureView leaders made a thoughtful decision to separate from the county.
“Had we known that this lawsuit was going to come about, we may have done things differently, but we had no way of knowing,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that this has happened, but it is still a good move for us to make.”