Dr. Kelli Christensen’s last day at the Community Health Center (CHC) in Sheridan will be Dec. 31, 2013. Christensen came to Sheridan in November of 2012, replacing longtime doctor Sarah Googe.
The CHC is a private, not-for-profit health center based out of Butte, with branches in both Dillon and Sheridan. Nondi Harrington of Sheridan served on the CHC board for a year and a half until she submitted a letter of resignation just two weeks ago on Dec. 9.
“I was invited to be on the Community Health Center’s board of directors to represent Sheridan and nearby communities in the Ruby Valley,” she explained. “I got involved because I wanted to help out my community… unfortunately, due to events beyond my control regarding Dr. Christensen’s departure, I felt it necessary to resign from the board.”
Harrington went on to explain that before she resigned, she submitted a list of community concerns and complaints to the other board members, though she never received a response. Harrington felt it necessary to submit the list initially because she was bombarded with questions from Sheridan-area residents.
“I get texts and emails regarding the situation to the point that it has become all-consuming of my time,” she said. “I am even approached in public or people stop by my home.”
Harrington cited the resignation of Christensen as one reason she stepped down, but the other CHC board member from the Sheridan-Twin Bridges area resigned in the last month as well. According to Harrington, Glen Brackett from Twin Bridges cited his age as the reason for resignation.
“Now there is not anyone from the area on the board,” Harrington said. “The disconnect is just going to get bigger.”
Janie Wasmann, Twin Bridges resident and CHC patient, believes the CHC administration is “out of touch” with the Sheridan clinic’s needs.
“The CHC needs to come out here and see exactly how our community is run,” she said. “We are a community of senior citizens and we cannot always hop in a car and drive to Bozeman, Dillon or Butte to see a doctor.”
Some CHC administrators traveled to Madison County on Wednesday, Dec. 18 at 5 p.m.—Jessica Hoff, CHC CEO, and Wayne Harper, CHC board chair, held a public meeting in Sheridan to address community concerns. The CHC’s Amy Olson, clinical coordinator and Don Foley, CFO were also in attendance.
Approximately 70 community members were also in attendance for the meeting, which lasted more than three hours in the elementary school cafeteria. Harper opened the discussion stating the board’s goal remains “plain.”
“Our goal remains to recruit a full-time doctor for the Sheridan clinic,” he said. “In the interim we will have the clinic staffed by a physician’s assistant (PA) with back up doctors for support in Dillon and Butte.”
Harper said a huge concern of the CHC board and administration was that there would be an “uprising” in the community and that the people would leave the clinic and travel to different doctors in Dillon or Butte.
The questions from community members focused on a few specific points. First, why did Christensen feel the need to resign? Second, what—if anything—did the CHC administration do to try to convince her to stay in Sheridan? And finally, after Christensen leaves, why will the Sheridan clinic be without a doctor and instead staffed by a part-time PA?
According to Harper, the CHC received Christensen’s letter of resignation on Sept. 30 and, from mid-October on, Hoff and the board were committed to looking for a replacement doctor.
“We have looked in the short amount of time we had to recruit,” Hoff said. “We decided to bring a part-time PA in after we looked at the needs of the clinic… if you are telling us you want us to leave the community, we will listen to that.”
According to Hoff and Harper, the CHC is committed to remaining in Sheridan to provide affordable health care to the Ruby Valley, but expressed concern that the community would be unwilling to support the clinic after Christensen’s resignation.
“It is so necessary we have a clinic here in our area and [the CHC] was great with [Christensen],” Wasmann said. “I will certainly give this new PA a try, but there will never be a replacement for [Christensen].”
Once Christensen arrived at the meeting after work, the people in attendance were curious to hear her reason for resignation.
“I had one-on-one meetings with [Hoff], medical director Shawna Yates and [Olson] where I was able to discuss some of the issues I was having,” Christensen said. “At one of the meetings I mentioned that having a mid-level provider at the clinic would help me do both in-patient (hospital) and out-patient (clinic) medicine while serving the community and not turning people away.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, Christensen said she felt Hoff and the CHC administration were unwilling to listen to her ideas about improving revenue and better serving the community.
However, at the meeting, Hoff said she offered support to Christensen and made compromises.
“The Community Health Center did work with [Christensen] on many issues and communicated with her on a regular basis,” Hoff said. “It is obvious from her comments during Wednesday’s meeting that she does not feel we did enough to help her. While we disagree, it is her right to feel as she does.”
Harper acknowledged the circumstances surrounding Christensen’s resignation showed him there must be better communication between administrators and providers.
After listening to the public, Harper also committed to working with Christensen to see if there would be a potential of bringing her back in the future—once she fulfills her recent one-year commitment in Idaho.
When asked if she could be convinced to stay, Christensen said no because she made a commitment she planned to uphold.
“Coming back is not off the table,” she said, though she made no commitments at the meeting to return to Sheridan. “But things would have to change. As a provider in Sheridan, I was not listened to or respected—each [satellite clinic] is different—listen and do not discount us.”