Growing to Meet the Need
“We want to ensure is that there is an affordable choice in the most un-affordable area in country,” says Ross Brooks, the chief executive officer for Mountain Family Health Centers.
That’s a tall order. In 2014, Colorado’s “Rocky Mountain Resort Region” – Eagle, Summit, Pitkin and Garfield counties – had the nation’s highest health insurance costs. While the Roaring Fork Valley isn’t presently in the top spot, Brooks says, “We are certainly going to be right up there again.”
But Mountain Family Health Centers has a history of taking on challenges. The company was born in 1978 in Blackhawk, back when the former mining town was tiny and remote. The local family doctor would treat anyone who came knocking, whatever the hour, day or night. He worked out of his home, and his fees were whatever the patient felt like paying. When he retired, residents faced a crisis.
A group of them banded together, formed a non-profit, raised money and wrote grants. They renovated and equipped a small clinic in an 1800’s building that had been donated by the local Veterans of Foreign Wars. Along the way, they founded a mountain institution.
Over the next couple of decades, their nonprofit grew, adding clinics in other needy mountain towns and eventually changing its name to Columbine Family Health Centers.
In 1998, when the only pediatric practice willing to accept Medicaid suddenly closed its doors in Glenwood Springs, it was Columbine that responded. Thanks to both local medical professionals and funders such as the Caring for Colorado Foundation, the Boettcher Foundation and the Aspen Community Foundation, a new clinic named Mountain Family Health Center opened in 1999 – albeit in a cramped 1,200 square foot facility with just four exam rooms and two healthcare providers.
Mountain Family Health Centers opened additional clinics in Basalt and Rifle in 2011, and in Edwards in 2014. It now provides primary care, dental, and behavioral health services to over 15,000 rural residents living in the Colorado Rockies. (The Blackhawk clinic closed in 2014.)
Despite the challenges mountain communities continue to face – or perhaps because of them – Mountain Family Health Centers is planning for serious growth. Noting that all four of its health centers are currently near or at capacity, Brooks explains, “We need the community to come together so that we can expand our sites and services. In Basalt, for example, we don’t have a dentist. We would like to add one. We also want to expand the number of behavioral providers on site. We’d like to do the same in Edwards.”
The need for affordable health care in the communities that Mountain Family serves is being keenly felt. Because Colorado HealthOp, the state’s biggest nonprofit health insurer, is closing, about 7,000 policyholders in Eagle, Garfield, Pitkin and Summit counties are scrambling to find new insurance. Even those unaffected by HealthOP are facing hefty increases. Congressman Jared Polis is worried about double-digit rate hikes. “This kind of increase simply doesn’t work for our community, and it will cause people to drop their health care because they can’t afford it.”
Brooks echos that concern and cites some statistics: Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties are home to more than 32,000 people who earn below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. Many of them work multiple jobs, and they are “sometimes undocumented.” Although Mountain Family’s clinics accept Medicare and Medicaid, as well as insurance coverage, more than one-third of the 15,000 patients they serve are uninsured.
“That’s kind of eye-popping, and that’s our target,” says Brooks. “Our patients are making meals, making beds and doing jobs that lots of higher-income people don’t know exist.” To serve the working poor, Mountain Family Health Care gets help from the state, counties, federal government, hospitals and private grants. To meet this growing need, they could use more help.
“One of the common misconceptions is that we are free clinic,” Brooks continues. “We’re not. You come in and declare your income. People pay on a sliding-fee scale. Some folks pay $20 per visit. But patients themselves do pay for their care; everyone contributes.”
“We believe that affordable health care is a human right and that we should provide it for our friends and neighbors,” says Brooks. “That’s why we want to grow our partnerships. We invite people who share our beliefs to invest in those partnerships.”
For more on MFHC, visit MountainFamily.org.