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Women 4 Wellness gives back to the community

by KRISTI NIEMEYER
Editor | May 30, 2024 12:00 AM

A team of “fierce women” spends months piecing together Women 4 Wellness, the giant healthcare fair held annually at Salish Kootenai College. According to Kellie Hudson, director of the Center for Prevention and Wellness at SKC, the event has served more than 15,000 women during its first 12 years (two years were lost due to COVID).

Before the doors opened last Thursday at the Joe McDonald Health and Fitness Center, 500 women had preregistered for the day’s menu of free tests and screenings, and easily twice that number signed up on their way in the doors for the 13th event.

Women 4 Wellness was launched 15 years ago with a grant the college received to provide HIV testing and screen women for heart health. From there, “it’s grown, and grown and grown,” Hudson says.

Eleanor Vizcarra helps recruit physicians, nurses and nurse practitioners, while Lake County’s major medical providers – St. Luke Healthcare, Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, CSKT Tribal Health, Community Medical and Logan Health – team up to provide a host of free tests and screenings.

Organizers spend close to eight months planning Women 4 Wellness, and it shows. The floor of The Joe was divided into four aisles, each with booths on either side, offering information, services, drawings for giant gift baskets, and free screenings, vaccines and vouchers for services. Upstairs, the Sherri McDonald Hospitality Room was equally packed with offerings.

Whitney Liegakos, who handles public relations for one of the medical sponsors – St. Luke Community Healthcare – says St. Luke “has been a big supporter of the event since the beginning.”

This year, the community hospital offered a dozen booths and services including vein checks, EKGs, nutrition assessments, vouchers for hearing evaluations, physical therapy tests, scheduling for free mammograms and bone-density scans, cervical screenings, manual breast exams and toddler vision screenings.

“It’s all free – that’s how we give back to the community,” she said. “It’s important to provide that service, recognizing that people who come to this event often don’t have health insurance, so this can be that stop-gap measure or help them get established with a primary-care provider who can get them started on a path to wellness.”

Rachel Pauli, who works with Cover Montana, a program of the Montana Primary Care Association, was helping people who may have recently lost Medicaid or Healthy Montana Kids coverage with a campaign called “Get Covered Again.”

Cover Montana aims to reach the 135,000 people who have lost coverage in the last year since the Montana Legislature tightened qualifications for the state-run Medicaid program. “That’s about 1 in 10 Montanans, so we want to make sure people know,” she said.

According to Pauli, 60% of those who lost coverage “were dropped due to procedural issues,” and that number includes 36,000 children and 13,000 tribal members.

Her organization provides resources, and helps people navigate the complex enrollment process, or look for affordable insurance at HealthCare.gov. “A lot of people we talk to don’t even know they’ve lost coverage until they go to pick up a prescription or see a provider for an appointment,” she said.

Pauli, who has attended the fair in the past, is impressed with the quality of Women 4 Wellness. “This is possibly the best health fair we’ve been to,” she said. “It’s really well organized, has a great variety of booths and actual services and they treat us really well – it’s just such a really good community event and it’s well attended.”

At the Pure Health booth, Riely Berlin was talking to people about another option to the high cost of healthcare: a direct primary-care clinic where patients pay a monthly fee that covers preventative care, chronic disease visits and hospital inpatient care, all provided by the same physician.

“We don’t work for your insurance company, we work for you,” Berlin said.  

The model is often attractive to younger adults, she added. “A lot of people my age don’t have insurance because they can’t afford it. It’s amazing to have this resource that’s much more doable.”

Berlin said this year marked her first time attending Women 4 Wellness as a participant.

“It’s amazing to see all the different businesses and companies working toward the same goal of making sure the women in our community are taken care of. It’s amazing to see this sense of family and this sense of everyone coming together to have a healthy community.”

Louetta Conko Camel, a student in SKC’s medical assistant program, was helping out at the CSKT Tribal Health booth, which offered screenings for diabetes and Hepatitis C.

“Women 4 Wellness is the best. It’s really helpful because it provides resources to everybody – not just tribal members,” she said. “I feel like everyone is included and everybody can get the healthcare they need, which is really important.”

    Women 4 Wellness connected 45 vendors with more than a thousand visitors last Thursday, filling the Joe McDonald Health and Fitness Center to the brim. (Kristi Niemeyer/Leader)
 
 
    Abby Wren added a little decorative flair to Hannah Schlappie's face during the Women 4 Wellness Fair at the Joe McDonald Health Center on the campus of Salish Kootenai College last Thursday. (Kristi Niemeyer/Leader)
 
 
    The cheerful crew at Summit Independent Living helped visitors during last Thursday's Women 4 Wellness Health Fair at Salish Kootenai College. (Kristi Niemeyer/Leader)