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For the first time since its creation in 1974, Yellowstone County’s public health department has earned national accreditation, a status held by fewer than 50 public health departments in the nation.

RiverStone Health is the first public health department in Eastern Montana to be accredited by the Virginia-based Public Health Accreditation Board and the second in Montana. The Missoula City-County Health Department also has earned accreditation.

As of Friday, only 44 of more than 3,000 public health departments in the country have voluntarily sought — and earned — accreditation.

“The leaders of RiverStone Health are really courageous because they are willing to put their work out for review against national standards,” said Kaye Bender, president and CEO of the Virginia-based group. “It’s risky. It’s real risky. Whoever is in charge has set a tone for good government.”

News of the accreditation was announced at a news conference Friday with Gov. Steve Bullock.

“RiverStone Health’s accreditation demonstrates accountability and credibility to everyone they work with, especially the residents of Yellowstone County,” Bullock said. “Their effort underscores a commitment to improving the lives and health of all Montanans.”

Accreditation, most commonly associated with hospitals and academic institutions, is relatively new for public health departments. The Public Health Accreditation Board, which launched in 2011 after more than a decade of development, is jointly funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It works to improve and protect the health of the public by elevating the performance of the nation’s tribal, state, local and territorial public health departments.

RiverStone’s governing board, the Board of Health, decided years ago that if accreditation should ever be available for public health departments and their programs, RiverStone should vigorously pursue it.

“Our community deserves — and should expect — that the services we provide are high quality, cutting edge, efficient and based on data and evidence,” said John Felton, president and CEO of RiverStone Health. “That’s really what accreditation is.”

Felton likens it to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

“It’s an external third party that has no skin in the game other than to say this is a public health agency that is providing the right kind of care and services in the right way,” Felton said.

The foundation of accreditation is about quality of care and process improvement, Felton said. "It's about measuring what we do and figuring out how to do it better."

Though he is the CEO, Felton said delivering public health services does not happen in his corner office.

"It happens by those working in the Gardeners' Market, in the WIC office (Women, Infants and Children program), those helping moms with babies who are high-risk, health promotions, restaurant inspections, immunizations and disease prevention," Felton said. "I'm so proud of my staff."

To receive its accreditation, which cost $25,000, RiverStone prepared for two years before undergoing a rigorous, multifaceted, peer-reviewed assessment process to ensure that it meets or exceeds a set of quality standards and measures. The accreditation board evaluated the 10 essential services of public health to make sure RiverStone is providing the full scope of public health services in Yellowstone County. RiverStone was required to provide evidence of compliance for 97 different measures.

The accreditation is good for five years, but that doesn't mean RiverStone gets a free pass until the next review, Bender said. RiverStone must submit annual reports and updates.

“RiverStone should be excited about what it’s accomplished,” Bender said. “And, so should the public. If I lived in Yellowstone County, I’d be real pleased a government agency would put itself out there like this.”