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The End of a Long Journey: The Rocky Boy Health Center

After years of delays, Rocky Boy’s new health center opens Friday.

The clinic’s opening means expanded health care services to the people of the under-served reservation. It means the staff will have facilities in which to provide more services. And it means that all those health services will be provided under one roof.

Jessica Windy Boy

“It’s the end of a long journey,” CEO Jessica Windy Boy said.

The clinic has been in various locations in recent years. It almost had a permanent location when a new clinic was built. But that was before flooding in 2010 damaged that facility. The clinic had to move two more times, and moving a health care center is no easy task.

But Friday at 1 p.m., west of Stone Child College,  the staff is ready to celebrate its new, permanent home. Dignitaries will give speeches, there will be a community feed, children will play games, door prizes will be awarded, and facility tours will be offered.

The 90,000-square-foot building houses all of the clinic departments. In the past, lack of space meant that some departments —  the diabetic center, the White Sky Hope substance abuse center, the finance department, the environmental health program, the Women, Infants and Children program and the emergency program — were in locations around the Rocky Boy Indian’s Reservation.

The spacious new facility has well-lit hallways that lead people to every kind of health care service. Even the tour guide leading a reporter through the building got lost.

“This community should feel blessed,” said Janet Runnion, a 28-year veteran of the clinic and director of public health nursing. She has seen the number of employees grow from 100 to 170 and has seen the health care services expand.

The view from a dental office in the new Rocky Boy Health Center

At each department, employees showed off the new equipment that will enable them to provide better service. The goal, they say, is not only to help people who are sick, but to expand programs that aim to keep people healthy in the first place — anti-tobacco programs that help cure people of their addiction to cigarettes, or better yet, stop them from smoking in the first place; dental programs for young people, including frequent teeth cleanings; increased behavioral health programs aimed at eliminating suicide, reducing drug abuse and curbing alcohol use; and more efforts to curb childhood obesity. Following federal rules, the staff has even prepared emergency plans in the unlikely event that Ebola strikesMontana and Rocky Boy residents have to be immunized.

Preventative programs will benefit the most from the new facilities, Windy Boy said. Young people are eating unhealthy foods more and more, she said, causing many to become overweight at earlier ages.

“We are seeing children as young as sixth grade with high blood pressure.”

Solving that problem at an early age will eliminate problems later, she said.

Rocky Boy Health Center//Photo by Teresa Getten

Windy Boy took over the CEO post in 2016. She said she didn’t realize the clinic’s construction would be on her plate. Problems had plagued the construction process. Tribal council thought it wise to build a clinic that would meet existing needs. They used the insurance money from the flooded clinic as a down payment and got federal grants for additional expenditures.

But soon funds from the early years of President Barack Obama’s administration dried up. The tribe ran out of money and work ground to a halt. With that backdrop, contractors were skittish about taking part in the project.

Finally, with federal grant money in hand, she convinced North Dakota contractors to take over the work.

Because of the problems, there were few local contractors. But there were some. Office Supply of Havre had the largest contract in history.

With those difficulties behind them, the clinic looks toward the future. Windy Boy would like to see the Urgent Care Department expanded to 24-hours a day. It now operates during the day, but hopefully, EMTs could work around the clock. Sick people or those receiving minor injuries in accidents could be treated at the clinic, though those more seriously hurt would have to be treated at Northern Montana Hospital in Havre.

The environment will also be a beneficiary of the clinic.

Although Rocky Boy sits atop underground reserves of natural gas, NorthWestern Energy does not provide natural gas service to the reservation. The clinic will operate entirely on geothermic energy, Windy Boy said. While the clinic is glad to be using clean energy, the staff really didn’t have much of a choice, she added.

“Green was our only option.”

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