Registered nurse and clinic manager Frannie Johnson prepares a flu vaccine for a waiting patient at the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association’s Community Health Center on the Yampa Valley Medical Center campus in Steamboat.

Photo by John F. Russell

Registered nurse and clinic manager Frannie Johnson prepares a flu vaccine for a waiting patient at the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association’s Community Health Center on the Yampa Valley Medical Center campus in Steamboat.

VNA's new Community Health Center offers affordable primary health care options for the uninsured, underinsured

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What is the status of your health insurance?

  • I’m fully insured. 70%
  • I’m underinsured. 8%
  • I’m uninsured. 22%

357 total votes.

— There was little fanfare Jan. 2 when the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association opened the doors to its new Community Health Center on the Yampa Valley Medical Center campus in Steamboat Springs. Perhaps there should have been.

With nearly 25 percent of Routt County’s adult population lacking any sort of health insurance, and with many other residents meeting the qualification of “underinsured,” the Community Health Center provides perhaps the best chance at affordable health care services for a significant portion of the local populace. Three physicians, a nurse practitioner and two physician’s assistants rotate between Steamboat’s new center and an existing VNA-operated Community Health Center in Craig, where 15 percent of that center’s 2,700 patients reported traveling from Routt County to receive basic care services. Both locations provide all the health care services one would receive from a typical doctor’s office, with an increased emphasis on integrating behavioral, physical and oral health.

VNA Executive Director Lisa Brown said the centers’ mission is simple.

“They’re absolutely designed to have income not be a barrier to access to health care,” she said.

That’s important, because income is the No. 1 barrier to health care access for most Coloradans. According to a 2011 Colorado Health Access Survey, 85 percent of uninsured respondents cited the high cost of insurance as the primary reason they lack coverage. Fewer employers sponsoring health insurance for their workers and the higher rate of unemployment stemming from the recession combine to exacerbate the problem.

There are other factors at play in Routt County. Ski resort communities in Colorado tend to have higher rates of uninsured than other parts of the state, and Routt County is no different. The prevalence of seasonal and part-time jobs in resort towns as well as a high number of residents between the ages of 19 and 34 — the demographic with the highest uninsured rate in the state — lead directly to higher-than-average rates of residents without insurance coverage here.

And when people lack insurance or don’t have enough insurance, they avoid the doctor’s office for all but the most serious ailments. Without preventative care, health issues go unaddressed until they become much costlier problems. Emergency room visits have increased across the state as more of the uninsured seek urgent care at hospitals.

Brown said that lack of preventative care is evident at the VNA’s Steamboat office. Patients who “ration” their health care or simply don’t have insurance come in only when they’re sick, and then they want the doctor to also take a look at their aching back as well as the growth on their neck, she said. They try to package everything into a single visit.

Brown’s hope is that with the Community Health Center, the uninsured and underinsured no longer have to do that. Because the cost of all services is based on a sliding scale determined by the patient’s income, the copays are designed to be affordable for everyone.

The Community Health Center is funded in large part by a federal grant and also by private donors, foundations and patient fees. Folks with insurance, including public insurance like Medicaid, Medicare and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, also can use the center.

With any luck, Brown said, the center will fill an increasingly growing need in the community for affordable health care services for all residents regardless of income or other common barriers, including cultural, language and transportation issues.

To reach Brent Boyer, call 970-871-4221 or email bboyer@SteamboatToday.com

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