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Ekalaka seeks levy money for critical care in rural Montana

A close-up of Dahl Memorial Healthcare's emergency sign
Posted at 5:07 PM, Jun 03, 2024

EKALAKA — In a rural state like Montana, access to healthcare can often mean the difference between life and death. Those rural healthcare services are costly—which is why Dahl Memorial Healthcare in Ekalaka is asking its citizens for funding to continue providing critical services.

Outside of the emergency department at Dahl Memorial Healthcare
Outside of the emergency department at Dahl Memorial Healthcare

"(The closest hospital) is the one in Baker. And so that's at least 35 to 40 miles,” said Sheila Sherman, the interim chief executive officer of Dahl Memorial Healthcare, in a recent interview with MTN News.

Sheila Sherman
Sheila Sherman

The vast land creates obstacles when it comes to access to healthcare.

A shot of Ekalaka
A shot of Ekalaka

"Coming across (Highway 7), it's a difficult road to come across on a nice day," Sherman said. "Imagine that in the winter. It's not passable on many, many days."

Driving on Highway 7
Driving on Highway 7

Highway 7 connects Ekalaka to Baker but can often be a dangerous path to take.

"When there's poor weather, oftentimes we are unable to get patients out, and so we're maintaining that patient care for long periods of time," said Carla Dowdy, the chief medical officer of Dahl, in a recent interview with MTN. "It requires a certain level of expertise in emergency medicine despite our lower volumes."

Carla Dowdy
Carla Dowdy

Since the 1990s, Carter County has placed a mill levy on its ballot every two years to fund the hospital.

Carter County Courthouse
Carter County Courthouse

"To not have that support moving forward, it would be a huge pressure on this organization," Sherman said.

The levy provides $260,000 for general hospital support and has only failed once over the years.

Emergency room sign
Emergency room sign

"We're really counting on it for the future of our hospital,” Sherman said.

Not only do residents of Carter County depend on the hospital for care, they also depend on it for housing.

Residents in long-term care at Dahl
Residents in long-term care at Dahl

The hospital’s long-term care unit is currently home to around 20 residents.

"We have our residents, of course, and that's anywhere from 18 to 20 patients," Sherman said. "There's a permanent home here, so we serve them on a daily basis."

Ekalaka's isolated location led to the hospital seeking out a critical access hospital designation.

"A critical access hospital is a special designation. You get that medication through applying with Medicare," Sherman said. "Where community hospitals are, they're community hospitals, right? But critical access is a special designation."

In Ekalaka
In Ekalaka

It's a hospital serving an important need in one of Montana’s most rural communities—and it hopes to do so for years to come.

"We see this mill levy as a vital support to Dahl Memorial's continued efforts to provide safe, secure, and quality health care to our frontier rural community. Particularly our residents in the (long-term) nursing unit of our hospital who call DMHA their home," Dowdy said. "Our focus in asking for support of this mill levy is to continue to provide excellent patient care, grow needed service lines, and be financial stewards for this hospital that allows Dahl Memorial Healthcare, a locally owned organization, to remain viable for generations to come."