Efforts by the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association and others to establish one or more community health centers in Northwest Colorado should be applauded.
Such community health centers are not always efficient to establish. Often, the number of potential patients is small, and many don't have insurance. But in the long run, providing greater access to health care to those with the greatest need benefits everyone.
There are more than 100 community health centers in Colorado, including 37 that are certified as Rural Health Clinics. There are no such clinics in Northwest Colorado.
In 1977, Congress passed the Rural Health Clinic Act to address the lack of access to primary medical care in rural communities and to assist with the financial challenges faced by rural health care facilities. A Rural Health Clinic must be in a nonurban area and be designated as a "Medically Underserved Area" because of a lack of health care professionals in the area.
Rural Health Clinics qualify for federal funds that help offset the costs of operating the clinic. Patients pay on a sliding scale according to income.
The only medically underserved area in Routt County is Oak Creek, according to the Colorado Community Health Network. The South Routt Medical Center, a small clinic in Oak Creek, has struggled to keep its doors open. The center is considering several options including seeking a Rural Health Clinic designation and possibly asking voters for tax support. Without changes though, the center's future is in jeopardy.
Sue Birch, executive director of the Visiting Nurse Association, thinks the rural health needs extend beyond South Routt. One of the greatest challenges she sees is the ability to provide care to individuals who are uninsured or underinsured. That need is particularly acute in Routt County, where the high cost of living often leads workers to gamble on going without insurance as a means of reducing expenses. Similarly, many at the lower end of the wage scale are hesitant to see a doctor until their health problems are at such a level that they are extremely expensive to treat.
"What we have here is an enormous number of people struggling between 150 and 200 percent of the poverty level," Birch said.
Birch noted that geographic barriers can prevent residents in South Routt, Hayden and other rural areas from accessing quality health care. There also is a growing demand for prenatal care, and communities are seeing the "ripple effects" of increased use of methamphetamine and other drugs.
Steamboat Springs is served by health care professionals and a hospital that would be the envy of almost any town of 10,000, particularly those in such an isolated geographical area. Many residents in the surrounding communities have the means to access health care services in Steamboat Springs; but many don't.
It is the latter residents whose health care needs could better be addressed through clinics in their communities.
No definitive direction on a clinic has been taken. The VNA merely has initiated discussions with meetings in Steamboat and Craig. Ultimately, the success of any clinic effort will depend on funding and support from throughout the region.
We think such support is warranted. After all, increasing access to health care not only will enhance the economic health of the communities where the clinics are placed, but also of the Northwest Colorado region as a whole.