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Needy flood low-income health clinic

Steve Lynn
Vail, CO Colorado
Kristin Anderson/Vail DailyPatients wait Thursday for their appointments at the Eagle Care Clinic in Edwards.
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EDWARDS ” A baby boy could have suffered from retardation without Diane Purse’s diligence.

A mother taking thyroid medication had just borne her fifth child. The boy had hypothyroidism ” which slows development of an infant’s brain ” and the mother didn’t know it.

“We called her and said ‘You need to come back for the test,” said Purse, a pediatric nurse practitioner at the Eagle Care Clinic. “She’s like, ‘Oh, the baby’s just fine.'”



“No please come down for the testing,” Purse said.

The boy is now taking thyroid medication and should be OK, she said.



Tucked away in the basement next door to the revered Shaw Regional Cancer Center lies the Eagle Care Clinic. You may not have heard of it ” the clinic does little marketing and promotion and is not listed in the phone book. The nonprofit Vail Valley Medical Center barely mentions the clinic on its Web site.

Three nurses or doctors at a time see a growing number of uninsured or underinsured patients from Eagle County in the six-room clinic each year.

In 1995, the clinic had 1,572 patient visits, said Beth Reilly, the clinic’s manager. Reilly has budgeted for 9,600 patient visits this year, she said.



Even with a $200,000 expansion ” which added two exam rooms and more health-care providers in 2006 ” the clinic is “at capacity,” according to an Eagle County Health and Human Services study.

“With the community growth, we’re going to need to get bigger,” Reilly said.

To grow, the clinic needs more space and employees, but like other businesses, the clinic’s fate is tied to the county’s affordable housing problem.

“For entry- and medium-level positions, I just think, ‘Where are they going to live, how are they going to afford it?'” Reilly said.

Maricela Avila, a medical assistant at the clinic, likes to stay busy.

“I couldn’t work in a regular doctor’s office,” said Avila, who has worked at the clinic since 2000.

The clinic’s employees also enjoy the gratitude of patients, who bring them food, such as tamales.

“People are so grateful to see us,” Purse said. “They wait hours for the care.”

From white to blacks, Hispanics to Africans, Czechs to Slovakians, business owners to unemployed people, the clinic sees a variety of patients, employees said.

And the atmosphere makes it unlike your typical health clinic.

Three years ago, Purse started out working four hours a week. Due to the increase in patients, she now works full-time, she said.

Purse works not only to treat illnesses, but to prevent them, she said.

And the work is tough ” people without insurance go without seeing a doctor for long periods of time and develop chronic diseases, employees said.

A man who had a broken arm once tried to fix it himself by having a family member attempt to straighten it, Reilly said.

When he finally came to the clinic, employees had to work on his untreated diabetes and heart disease before they could give him arm surgery.

Sometimes, it’s easier to treat patients.

A family was driving through Eagle County on their way to Texas when their car broke down. The woman had a baby at the Vail Valley Medical Center and the family returned to their Dotsero campsite to huddle in their cold camper as their newborn developed jaundice.

“They just happened to be passing through like anybody could be passing through,” Purse said. “They just happened to not have any money.”

It was too cold for the woman to make breast milk, so the baby was not getting enough fluids, Purse said.

The Salvation Army put the family in a hotel, where it was warm enough to make breast milk for the baby.

“That’s just another thing that’s very easy to fix,” Purse said.

The clinic spends an average of $152.98 per patient and charges Medicaid rates, between $30 and $50 per visit, Reilly said. Despite that $100 loss, residents who use emergency care actually benefit from its existence, she said.

“Every person we keep out of the emergency room from giving primary care here saves the community and the emergency room tenfold,” Reilly said.

Uninsured people use Vail Valley Medical Center’s emergency room to get treatment for ear infections, sore throats and respiratory illnesses, the Eagle County study says.

That inefficient use of resources forces the hospital to raise costs, which are passed on to other people who use the hospital ” not to mention higher insurance premiums and co-pay for those who are insured, said Jill Hunsaker, public health manager for Eagle County.

In July, people who didn’t have health insurance or have insurance and failed to provide it to the hospital owed a total of $6.2 million.

“In order to meet the health-care needs, we will have to grow unless there’s some significant, national policy changes on health care,” Reilly said.

Staff Writer Steve Lynn can be reached at 748-2931 or slynn@vaildaily.com.


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