Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana (BCBSMT) announced on Monday the donation of $250,000 as the lead gift in a new fundraising campaign being launched by the Billings Clinic Foundation to help sustain Montana’s first-ever psychiatry residency.
"Montana is in the middle of a mental health crisis," said John Doran, divisional vice president of external affairs at BCBSMT. "Part of the issue is the lack of robust behavioral health services in our state. We applaud Billings Clinic's leadership to establish a psychiatry residency program – the first of its kind in Montana — and we share in Billings Clinic's commitment to do all we can to prevent suicide in communities across this great state."
BCBSMT's gift kicks off a $3.3 million fundraising campaign by the Billings Clinic Foundation for the Psychiatry Endowment Fund, which will provide continued funding for the psychiatry residency program at Billings Clinic after its start-up period.
The endowment fund will help Billings Clinic maintain a sustainable psychiatry residency program for Montana with an emphasis on recruiting residents that possess a strong desire to practice in Montana and who have a passion for leadership and innovation.
"Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana continues to be a leader in health care in Montana and their generous commitment will help ensure the lasting improvement of mental health care access for all Montanans," said Jim Duncan, president of the Billings Clinic Foundation. "Mental health affects all of us, and we rely on significant philanthropic support and partnerships like this to achieve the ambitious goal of training future psychiatrists to ensure affordable access to high-quality, innovative health care, delivered close to home."
For decades, three states – Montana, Wyoming and Alaska – have consistently reported suicide rates that are, or are among, the highest in the country. These are also the only states without residency programs to train psychiatrists. Rural areas in Montana and throughout the region face a mental health crisis due to high suicide rates, isolation and a lack of mental health care resources and providers.
Considering these needs, Billings Clinic announced in September of 2018 the creation of Montana’s first-ever psychiatry residency program. Called the Montana Track at Billings Clinic, this program will be a regional track of the University of Washington Psychiatry Residency Training Program.
BCBSMT's donation is part of its own focus on preventing suicide. Earlier this fall, BCBSMT launched The Big Blue Sky InitiativeSM, a major statewide educational campaign to help fight opioid abuse, rising suicide rates and meth and heroin epidemics that are spreading across Montana. The Big Blue Sky Initiative aims to put resources in the hands of the communities it serves, so everyone can get through this together.
"There are too many heartbreaking stories affecting our neighborhoods across Montana," Doran said. "But if we all come together, and expand access to quality, affordable health care through intelligent initiatives like the psychiatry residency program at Billings Clinic, Montana will get through this."
Montana's Psychiatry Residency program will train residents with a strong desire to serve in rural areas. After completing medical school, residents will spend their first two years in Seattle, Washington, and complete their 3rd and 4th years in Montana.
Montana native and Billings Clinic psychiatrist, Julie Kelso, MD, will serve as program director. Through the residency, psychiatrists will train to become change agents in the rural communities they serve by uncovering and nurturing their passions, teaching evidence-based clinical skills and inspiring innovative approaches to closing gaps in community-based systems of mental health care.
"We anticipate working together with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana on additional program innovations and look forward to an enduring partnership as we create and sustain a vibrant, innovative and nationally-recognized program," Kelso said.
Residents will be integrated into Billings Clinic Psychiatric Services, which includes Montana’s largest inpatient psychiatric practice, a 44-bed inpatient psychiatric unit serving children and adults, and the state’s most comprehensive behavioral health team made up of 12 psychiatrists, eight nurse practitioners and one physician assistant.
Billings Clinic psychiatry programs and resources are available to Montanan's through several programs. Project ECHO Billings Clinic, provides tele-mentoring support across the state through the Eastern Montana Telemedicine Network. In March, Billings Clinic opened Montana’s first Psychiatric Stabilization Unit, an innovative unit designed to get patients in psychiatric crisis out of the emergency department and into an outpatient setting.
The psychiatry residency is the culmination of a statewide effort that began in 2014 when the Montana Healthcare Foundation awarded Billings Clinic a $50,000 planning grant to study the feasibility of a psychiatric residency program. This work eventually pulled together a diverse group of interested people and organizations from across Montana to successfully work with the 2017 Montana Legislature on the approval of increased graduate medical education funding, a portion of which is supportive of to the residency. In September of 2018, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable announced it had awarded Billings Clinic a $3 million grant to help establish the program and cover its first three years of operational costs.
The residency has received more than 400 applicants to date for its first class is now interviewing potential residents. The program will begin matching psychiatrists in early 2019 and will bring in its first class to Seattle that summer and to Billings in 2021.
For more information on the fundraising campaign or to donate, visit the Billings Clinic website.