STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK of Eye on Sun Valley
Family Health Services had given up all hope of ever opening a clinic in the Wood River Valley after one grant request after another was rejected because the median income in the valley was too high.
That’s when St. Luke’s Wood River Foundation stepped in.
The foundation offered $1 million to make it happen, the landlord offered his building at a discount and Dr. Grant Stevens donated dental equipment.
And this past week nearly a hundred valley residents crowded into the 4,136-square-foot brick building to watch Brad Williams, the clinic’s new dentist, cut the ribbon on a facility that will offer affordable, accessible health care to those without insurance or on Medicaid.
“We feel as if this is one of the most impactful investments we’ve ever made,” said Megan Tanous, the chief development officer for St. Luke’s Wood River Foundation. “It feels like magic.”
As community leaders milled around checking out the new behavioral health services office and discount pharmacy, Dentist Brad Williams shared his glee at watching elk come right up to the window of the new dental offices. And Dr. Alisa Barnes and Dr. Kimberly Tenold happily greeted the crowd as they showed off six new examination rooms.
“We thought we might have five people turn out for the ribbon-cutting. This is fantastic!” said Dr. Alisa Barnes, who moved from Salt Lake City to serve as a general physician at the clinic.
Dr. Kimberly Tenold began working with the underserved in a medical clinic in Maine 25 years ago.
“Serving the underserved has always been in my heart,” she said. “Generally, the people have had poor access to health care so they’re usually a lot sicker than the general population. And they’re so appreciative when you help them.”
Tenold moved here from North Carolina with her husband, teenage sons and their golden doodle a few months ago. But she was not unfamiliar with the Sun Valley area. She had become acquainted with it in 2019 when she googled “cross country skiing” while learning to ski and saw an Eye on Sun Valley video of the Boulder Mountain Tour.
“We’re really enjoying it here and looking forward to discovering more of what the area has to offer,” she said. “And I’m so excited about working here. I would have done this for free had they not hired me.”
Family Health Services expects to lose money on the Bellevue clinic since staff wages will be higher and the volume of patients smaller than that of the organization’s other nine clinics, said CEO Aaron Houston.
But that’s okay, he added, as Family Health Services is a nonprofit organization focused on getting health care to those who have no insurance or who have insurance with high deductibles.
There is a significant number of Wood River Valley residents who don’t have health insurance, he added.
More than 700 Blaine County patients traveled to Family Health Services clinics in Jerome and Fairfield last year—and numbers were down due to the pandemic. Typically, 3,000 patients would be expected to access the clinic in a given year.
One of the biggest gaps in care in the Wood River Valley is dentistry. The Jerome dental clinic has 75 Blaine County residents on a waiting list.
Just last week, said Dentist Adam Hodges, one Wood River Valley resident had to call a Family Health Services clinic in Burley for emergency treatment since the others were all booked up. Eventually, Family Health Services was able to shift things around to get the patient into the closer Jerome office.
“People from here aren’t likely to schedule appointments for preventative dental care in Jerome because that would means taking a day off work and, possibly, taking students out of school,” he said. “And then, of course, they have the expenses of transportation.”
Houston said Family Health Services is the only dental clinic in the area that accepts a lot of self-pay and Medicaid patients.
“And that’s understandable. Medicaid is a horrible payer. You can get paid three times from a regular patient what you might get reimbursed for a Medicaid patient,” he added.
Being able to offer preventative medical and dental checkups will lower the costs for everyone because the uninsured won’t incur expensive trips to the emergency room because they waited so long to address a problem, he said.
Family Health Services opened its first clinic in Burley in 1982. Since it has added three in Twin Falls and one each in Kimberly, Buhl, Burley, Jerome, Fairfield and Rupert. A clinic is slated to open in Shoshone in August 2022.
“This is awesome,” said Hailey resident Jane Dyndiuk as she looked around. “There are a lot of treatment rooms, the dental facility—it’s a one-stop medical care facility.”