Raelene Yazzie

Receptionist for Circle of Life home care Raelene Yazzie speaks with a woman at her booth during the Urban Indian Resource Fair at the Billings Public Library on Tuesday.

BRONTE WITTPENN, Gazette staff

When the Indian Health Board of Billings closed its clinic in May, hundreds of urban Indian patients were left without easy access to health care.

“It has put a lot of stress on people,” said Anna Schmitt of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council. “They have to drive at least 45 minutes to get to a clinic.”

That can be difficult if they have to find transportation or take time off from their jobs, she said. To access health care in Billings with no insurance can be prohibitively expensive.

So Tuesday afternoon, more than 20 community organizations gathered at the Billings Public Library to give some of the 5,900 urban American Indians who live in Billings options about where to find the services they need, medically and otherwise. The Urban Indian Resource Fair was co-sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council and Planned Parenthood of Montana.

Insurance assisters were on hand to help people determine their eligibility and options for marketplace insurance plans, for Medicaid and for the Children’s Health Insurance Program. They could be enrolled on the spot.

Visitors could also learn about a lot of other services available in Billings and the surrounding communities. For instance, Circle of Life Montana, which is based in Hardin, is a Native American-specific home care agency that provides a range of services to people in Yellowstone, Big Horn and Rosebud counties.

The agency, which has its main branch in Minnesota, established a presence in Montana earlier this year. It provides the services of personal care attendants to Medicaid patients with physical or mental health disabilities so they can remain in their homes.

“Since we’re fairly new, it’s hard to get the word out there,” said Raelene Yassie, a receptionist with Circle of Life.

Tuesday’s resource fair was a good way to let people know the Native-owned-and-operated service is available, she said, adding the services are open to people of all nationalities.

Marcus Red Thunder was on hand to explain the services provided by New Day Inc. The Billings-based organization has offered a 90-day residential treatment program for adolescents since 1993, incorporating Native American cultural activities.

It is now just beginning to provide outpatient healing for adults with addictions.

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Urban Indian Resource Fair

Program Coordinator of Western Native Voice Ta'jin J. Perez speaks with a woman during the Urban Indian Resource Fair at the Billings Public Library on Tuesday. The event hosted more than 20 community organizations to provide information about their programs and services to connect with urban American Indians.

“It’s important for us to show urban Indians the resources that are available to them so we can promote wellness to our community on and off the reservation,” Red Thunder said.

Since the Indian Health Board closed down, there’s been a lot more awareness of the need to get information about available resources out to people, he said.

“There’s a large, active Native American community in Billings,” he said.

Mary Gayton, an advocate with the Crow Tribal Domestic Violence program, offered an array of pamphlets on her table to let people know about the organization’s work. Based in Crow Agency, it springs into action when told of an abuse victim by the reservation’s police department or hospital.

“We get them the resources they need,” Gayton said.

That might include shelter or counseling or support throughout the legal proceedings, including securing protection orders. Although the bulk of its work is done on the reservation, the program will help Billings abuse victims find a safe place on the reservation.

Like everywhere, abuse happens on the reservation, Gayton said, but it often goes unreported.

“A lot of people don’t know there are these resources,” she said. “It’s always something pushed under the rug because of shame or embarrassment.”

The day was helpful to both consumers and providers. Lisa LaMere, a case manager with the Human Resources Development Council in Billings, wanted to get to know the agencies that assist her clients.

“I like to touch base with every booth,” she said. “It’s nice to know there’s a lot of services out there. I want to connect with the people, not just the programs.”

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Michaela Goes Ahead

From left, Michaela Goes Ahead asks about health services at a Billings Clinic booth during the Urban Indian Resource Fair at the Billings Public Library on Tuesday.

Michaela Goes Ahead, one of LaMere’s clients, wanted to learn for herself what resources she can tap as she gets closer to delivering her baby. She was surprised about all the services she discovered Tuesday at the event.

Desmona Littlesun, who has lived in Billings for 20 years, was one of the many people who accessed the Indian Health Board clinic until it closed.

“That’s where my primary doctor was,” Littlesun said. “And they helped me with transportation to Crow for dental care.”

She now goes to RiverStone Health for care. On Tuesday, she took advantage of the resource fair to see what other types of services are available locally.

Littlesun, a recovering alcoholic who has turned her life around, was looking to see how she might get involved in the community. She signed up to learn more about how to become a CASA volunteer.

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.