Ronan is home to the largest number of tribal members on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
Yet, they’ve historically had a serious lack of healthcare. But now, that’s changing.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) are finally building the Tribal Health Center it has needed, thanks to Mofi and the New Markets Tax Credit. The new center will provide a vital need for tribal members in and around Ronan.
During the construction of U.S. Highway 93, the previous CSKT Tribal Health Center was removed. The Tribes received money because of the displacement and hoped to use the new funds to build a new health center that would meet the needs of all Tribal members.
“So our goal is to provide the same level of health care that the rest of Montanans enjoy, or the norm that America enjoys,” CSKT Tribal Chairman Tom McDonald says. “So that means that there are missing elements in the health care that we’ve historically been provided through the Indian Health Service or through our Tribal Health.”
Their original plans involved a fitness center, full-service pharmacy, and room for pediatric and maternal care. However, due to rising inflation and competitive costs for contractors, the project had to be terminated before it was ever finished.
“What we had designed and thought was doable became not doable because of the price of inflation,” McDonald says. “It became critical for us to shrink the footprint down at this health care facility, so that meant the physical fitness center wasn't there anymore, and it meant the expanded pharmacy wasn’t there anymore.”
Looking for other funding options to finalize the building, CSKT turned to Mofi, a nonprofit Community Development Financial Institution that provides financial support to disadvantaged communities and entrepreneurs. Mofiwas happy to get on board.
“Ultimately it’s important to us if it’s important to the tribe,” Dave Glaser, president at Mofi, says. "They needed this new facility to replace the one that was displaced by the highway. And the temporary health center they had was not adequate to the needs of the tribal populations.”
The new health center is a $10.3 million facility that will include the aspects wanted by the tribes in the original plan. The additional programs will be unique to Ronan.
“The kind of stuff — pediatric type stuff — that we don’t quite do at the other health clinics that we have on the reservation,” McDonald says.
Currently, residents of Ronan must drive to Polson, St.Ignatius, or even Missoula to receive health care.
“It provides a super need for our people,” McDonald says. “They don’t have to drive to Polson, and they don’t have to drive to St. Ignatius. The cost of them driving, you know, 15 miles to go get care, 30 miles round trip, that’s going away because they’ll have it right in their community.”
McDonald says the cost of transportation to health care can be a big burden for families.
“The average income for people residing in the city limits of Ronan, it’s really low,” he says. “The medium income is extremely low. To be able to provide that level of service to the heart of where the majority of our people live, is a dramatic improvement in them getting care quickly, whether it’s emergency care or seeing a specialist at that location.”
Ronan draws many people because of its close proximity to job opportunities and its affordable housing programs, according to McDonald. This means the health center will provide care to a large population of tribal members.
Further, the building is in the center of town, close to the school system and the Boys and Girls Club, making it walkable location for a lot of Ronan residents, McDonald says.
Still, a health center doesn’t mean much without experienced medical professionals to fill its halls.
“Rural America, it’s difficult anywhere you go and you couple that on top of an Indian reservation, it becomes even more of a difficulty in getting professionals and getting to be able to compete in the marketplace.”
But McDonald says a state-of-the-art facility will better attract these doctors and medical professionals, and hopefully compete with Missoula and other larger markets in Western Montana.
The new building will provide further job opportunities to Tribal Members. Salish Kootenai College offers a nursing program, and McDonald hopes to bring more Native people into health care.
Glaser says Mofi sees the same scarcity of professional healthcare, not only in Ronan but across all rural communities in Montana.
“From our perspective, rural healthcare, particularly on reservations, has been dramatically under adequate relative to the needs of the people that live in these places,” Glaser says. “So having safe, affordable health care that’s near to where people live is paramount to making sure that reservations, tribal members and rural communities across Montana thrive into the future.”
Mofi was able to give CSKT additional funding for this project through the New Markets Tax Credit program. NMTC is a U.S. Treasury program that sells tax break credits to banks, then uses the money from that sale to finance projects in low-income communities. It is able to provide around 20% of project costs, Glaser says.
NMTC was born in 2009 but is set to expire in 2025. In Montana, the program has bipartisan support in the senate, as Sen. Tester and Sen. Daines both see it as a way to provide essential economic development to rural Montana.
“We are so pleased to have such bipartisan support for a permanent extension of New Market Tax Credits, including Sen. Daines and Sen Tester,” Glasor says. “Without that tax credit program being permanent and something Montanans can have access to going on into the future, you can imagine that it’s very, very difficult in rural communities to find capital at the amount that New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) can serve as a magnet to bring into these communities.”
Sen. Daines recently announced his position as lead co-sponsor for the continuation of NMTC.
The CSKT Tribal Health Center is set to be completed in early 2024, with construction on the expansion beginning close to May.
McDonald adds that the Reservation and rural communities are always in the need for funding, and encourages people to help or donate to these areas in any way they can.
“All the time we have unmet needs," McDonald told MTN News.