A rural health center in Madawaska that has seen a 31 percent increase in patients since COVID-19 will use a federal grant to upgrade services to meet the growing demand.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded Fish River Rural Health a $69,800 grant, which the medical facility will use to purchase equipment for its family medicine, dental, optometry, technology and food distribution services, according to the USDA. The health center, which serves northern Aroostook with facilities in Eagle Lake, Fort Kent and Madawaska, also offers chiropractic care.
Fish River CEO Heather Pelletier said the changes will help them meet a growing demand that began during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many St. John Valley residents would cross over to Canada for dental, vision and chiropractic care before the pandemic, but while the Canadian border remained closed for nearly three years, Fish River experienced a growth in new patients, she said.
“We never thought our border would close for even 12 months, let alone almost three years,” Pelletier said. “So it really changed things for us. We were set up meeting the demands as we knew them, and then the demand changed when that happened.”
Fish River Rural Health is a federally qualified health center, a distinction that allows it to provide services with a sliding fee discount program based on family size and income.
She said the health facility has seen a 31 percent growth in visits when comparing January through June 2022 with the same period in 2023.
“It’s a strong growth,” Pelletier said. “It’s not just a little bit of demand. It’s a lot of demands, a lot of folks looking for care, and looking for care now, and this equipment will support that increase in services.”
Fish River runs a part-time clinic in Madawaska, and plans are underway to expand to a full-time clinic. It will be located downtown, in the same plaza where Kmart formerly stood. Pelletier said this funding will also help with equipment in the new space. The equipment in the part-time rented clinic space will be moved to the new building.
Pelletier said Fish River Rural Health is negotiating the financing and contracting for the new Madawaska project and is not ready to speculate on a completion date. Once a bid is awarded, construction is expected to take roughly two years, she said.
“This isn’t the first time the USDA has supported us,” Pelletier said. “People really benefit from the USDA’s recognition, and rural communities really appreciate and need the level of support that they offer.”