Health Center focus of meetings

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The number of uninsured and underinsured people in Northwest Colorado is increasing, and health officials are asking how best to address that trend.

One answer might be to have a Community Health Center.

On Friday, residents are encouraged to attend meetings in Steamboat Springs and in Craig to consider the concept of a Community Health Center.

The meetings will provide information about community health centers. They also will provide forums for health care providers and community leaders to consider whether the region should pursue such a center.

Community health centers are nonprofit or public health clinics that are in high-need areas and serve patients, regardless of their ability to pay, through a sliding-fee scale. The health centers are governed by community boards and receive federal funding to help offset some costs of caring for uninsured patients.

"The growing number of uninsured (and underinsured) residents in our region continues to concern us, and it really is a public health concern," said Sue Birch, executive director for the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association.

There is substantive research that shows growing health disparities between people who have insurance and people who do not. For instance, people without insurance or people who have very high deductibles for their insurance may wait a long time before seeing a doctor when they have health issues. They may see a doctor only when their conditions have become emergencies, which is riskier and more expensive.

"It's just far smarter to try to hit these (health) problems early on," Birch said.

In 1999, a survey suggested that just less than 20 percent of residents in Routt and Moffat counties were uninsured or underinsured, Birch said. What the VNA has seen and what physicians and hospitals are reporting suggest that the number has increased to 25 to 30 percent, she said.

The VNA also is collecting data from primary care physicians to see how many uninsured and underinsured patients they see. That survey will help determine whether Northwest Colorado is a medically underserved area.

The process through which communities can apply to get federal funding for a Community Health Center is competitive. The discussions on Friday will be another step toward that application process.

VNA is hosting the talks to consider a Community Health Center, but the community should initiate further discussions.

"If the community isn't behind this effort, it's not going anywhere," said Cece Carsky, who is coordinating the project.

Carsky said that if a Community Health Center is needed in Northwest Colorado, it could have a far-reaching positive effect on the community.

"There's no question that the health and well-being of your community ... is related to how you take care of those people who are really on the fringe," Carsky said.

Mindy Klowden, community development manager for Colorado Community Health Network, will help lead the meetings Friday. Jodi Hartman of Salud Family Health Centers also will help lead, sharing Salud's experiences in operating satellite clinics.

Klowden said that a board of directors governs community health centers, allowing local consumers to make key decisions about their own health care.

There are 15 community health centers in Colorado, for a total of 108 sites.

A Community Health Center can look different in every community, depending on local needs, Klowden said.

She emphasized that it is a very competitive process for a community to be approved for a Community Health Center. Communities have to show that there are residents who cannot access primary care and that there is a need for the center.

Although community health centers help relieve the burden on physicians and hospitals, their primary benefit is providing health care to those who need it, Klowden said.

"It helps to provide access to primary care to community members that are not able to get it currently," she said.

-- To reach Susan Cunningham, call 871-4203 or e-mail scunningham@steamboatpilot.com

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