As the adage goes, when one door closes another opens, and earlier this summer, that sentiment was realized as the Flathead County Chemical Dependency Clinic reopens its doors not as the facility residents have long-been familiar with, but as Gateway Community Services.
According to officials of both the former and new clinics, the current and future clients of Gateway are in good hands.
The new facility is an expansion of Gateway Community Services in Great Falls, one of Montana’s original nonprofit addiction centers that has outlasted the highs and lows of the health-care system for nearly 50 years. Gateway officially took over operations in June and were closed for one week for staff training.
According to the executive director of Gateway Community Services, Bob Wigdorski, Northwest Montana residents can now expect more of an integrated behavioral-health approach at the center, or what is often referred to as “whole-person health.”
Acknowledging the complexity of addiction, the center will offer services in both mental health and primary care so most clients’ needs can be addressed by one collaborative team based in the same building.
“Commonly, addicts will feel judged when they walk into a center for treatment. We’ve seen this time and time again. So we try to make sure all of their needs can be met under one roof, in a space where they feel comfortable being,” Wigdorski said.
Gateway will also take over operations at the clinic’s two sister locations in Libby and Thompson Falls. According to Wigdorski, staff at the three locations will all retain their positions.
He added that while Flathead County is consuming the lion’s share of his attention at the moment, he hopes to eventually bring a similar model, but on a smaller scale, to the Libby and Thompson Falls locations.
“We think Gateway can be a great asset for our community,” said Carrie Denton, who works at the clinic which sees about 30 patients per week.
She said Gateway has allowed the clinic to offer a Minor Imposition Program for people under 21 who are caught drinking.
“Flathead Chemical Dependency didn’t offer that, so that’s a good change. It gives us better support for our people.”
Denton said clients have adjusted and many seem to like the new group scheduling. She said she was also excited to see a mental health component come to the clinic at some point.
Mike Cummins, executive director of the former Flathead County Chemical Dependency Clinic, said in a recent interview the rise of integrated behavioral health is one of the many reasons the nonprofit decided to dissolve after 45 years and offered the center to Gateway.
According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, integrated behavioral health is “a rapidly emerging shift in the practice of high-quality health care. It is a core function of the ‘advanced patient-centered medical home.’”
Wigdorski said Gateway in Great Falls made the transition toward an integrated system a few years ago by bringing in medical professionals to work beside chemical dependency specialists.
While there are many primary-care centers in the nation bringing in addiction specialists, Wigdorski saw no reason why Gateway couldn’t do the same, but in reverse.
“We thought, why can’t we bring the medical-care side to the clinic? We were one of the first groups in the state to do that in Great Falls and it’s been very successful financially and for the clients,” Wigdorski said.
In time, Gateway in Flathead County will closely resemble that model by bringing in a physician of its own — something Wigdorski hopes will happen by 2020. He said he has been working with the Flathead City-County Health Department to incorporate the physician.
Leslie Diede, executive director of the health department, said the two centers will be working closely as the collaboration is a “better model for providing care.”
“From our [the health department’s] perspective, this is a nice fit for the existing patients and for future patients,” Diede said. “We are really excited. We know they [Gateway] have a great reputation and have relationships with other providers in the state. I think it will be a really smooth transition.”
Over the years, the retention rates and graduation rates of clients have increased dramatically at Gateway in Great Falls, according to Wigdorski. Simultaneously, the “no-show” rate, in which a client does not show up for their appointment, has dropped to 15 percent. He said the state average in Montana for no-shows is about 30 percent. Overall, he feels the Flathead Valley center will come to see similar successes with its clients.
Other features of the Great Falls location he hopes to eventually bring to the Flathead Valley are a peer support group and a drop-in center, which is a safe space where clients and others can escape the elements and feel welcome to simply hang out in an environment that is conducive to addiction recovery.
“It has been a hectic few months since Mike [Cummins] approached us about taking over the clinic,” Wigdorski said. “But once we understood that the services these centers provide are vital to their areas, we couldn’t say no.”
It’s that sacrificial attitude that drove Cummins to approach Wigdorski about taking over the clinic. And although the Flathead County Chemical Dependency sign that still hangs on the building will soon be replaced by Gateway Community Services, the two providers share similar visions for patient care.
“We have always been here for our clients, not for ourselves, and we will always create a client-centered culture” Wigdorski said. “Like anyone making a decision like this, Gateway is taking a risk, but it’s one we are happy to take.”