Grant goal: Care for 3,500 valley residents
EAGLE COUNTY — When Rachel Oys joined Eagle County’s public health department four years ago, there was a lingering item at the top of her to-do list: help expand access to health care for county residents. That’s why Oys got goosebumps the day she heard the county had landed a $650,000-per-year federal grant to do just that.
“We were all very excited when we heard,” Oys said.
Health care changes
The grant will mark several changes in how health care is provided at the EagleCare Clinic, a facility in Edwards primarily for uninsured or underinsured patients run by Vail Valley Medical Center.
The biggest change is that the clinic will be managed and run by Mountain Family Health Centers. That group was founded in Blackhawk in the days before the casinos came, and now it has clinics in Glenwood Springs, Basalt and Rifle. The transfer from EagleCare to Mountain Family will take place during the next few months, and the transition is expected to be complete by the end of February.
One thing won’t change during the changeover — people without insurance will still be able to get care at the clinic. Another thing that won’t change is the presence of Dr. Kent Petrie, one of the people who helped create EagleCare and the clinic’s current director. Petrie will take on the same role with Mountain Family.
A lot of other things will change, though. One of the biggest is the fact that the Mountain Family clinic will accept insurance. EagleCare now doesn’t accept patients with conventional health insurance. That means if a doctor or other professional goes to work at Mountain Family, then longtime patients can follow that person to the clinic.
Avoiding Emergency Room
Eagle County commissioner Jill Ryan, a longtime public health professional, said the combination of funding, from private insurance to Medicaid and other public insurance, will help the long-term prospects of the clinic.
Ryan said the fact that Mountain Family will be open to anyone — and be available for preventative and primary care — will help keep people out of the local emergency room, the most expensive care there is.
Mountain Family director Ross Brooks agreed, saying that emergency room visits have dropped in other areas where the organization operates.
Mental, Dental Care
Another big change is that Mountain Family provides more than just medical care. The organization also provides mental-health and dental care at its other clinics. Space is being found now for a few offices for MindSprings Health, the new name for Colorado West Mental Health Center. Brooks said people who come for medical treatment can get immediate referrals to a mental-health professional, possibly on the same visit.
The idea behind the new model is more than a decade in the making. Vail Valley Medical Center has for years put a lot of resources, both in cash and people, into EagleCare, primarily because of the large number of uninsured people and families in the valley — as high as 29 percent of the population.
In an effort to take some of the financial burden off the medical center — which will continue to provide monetary support to the Mountain Family operation — county officials several years ago started work on getting the county declared a “medically underserved” area. That’s hard to do, given that the county’s affluent residents skew average income above what counts as “underserved” in the government’s formulas.
“It’s very unusual to have a resort region get that designation,” Oys said.
Once that happened, the county then applied for a grant to help pull together a more comprehensive health care project. Like most government grants, there are always far more applicants than available money. That led to some frayed nerved when it got to be grant award time.
Now that plans are well on the way to becoming reality, Brooks said he’s looking forward to the ultimate goal: “We want this to be the medical home for people,” he said.