Primary health care

Southwest Colorado has long been known by those who live here – or seek to – as a region with a shortage of primary medical-care options. Various people and entities have attempted to rectify this imbalance between patients seeking care and the supply of providers available to little avail until recently, when Axis Health System was able to achieve what none before it could: a federal designation that brings needed dollars for service.

Axis historically has been in the mental-health business, but Executive Director Bern Heath recognizes the bigger health-care picture and has been pursuing the coveted Federally Qualified Health Center designation for four years. Last month, Heath’s work was rewarded with the designation – and the funding that accompanies it – setting in motion a rapid-response effort to open a clinic in Durango that will provide primary care, contracted dental services and behavioral and substance-abuse treatment.

That facility would not be possible without the $733,000 in first-year setup and operations funding that the federal designation brings, and it will be helped significantly by $650,000 in annual funding after this year. The money, Heath says, will fund much-needed health-care services for three groups of local residents: those on Medicaid, people who cannot find a primary-care provider, and those who are uninsured or underinsured.

“The people we’ll serve are at risk of getting primary care in emergency rooms,” Heath said. “It creates a significant burden on existing primary-care resources.”

He is right, and the Durango clinic will go a long way in easing that burden. But Heath is looking beyond that achievement and considering the whole region’s need.

By leveraging the Federally Qualified Health Center designation the Durango facility has received, Heath hopes to secure a similar designation and funding for Axis’ clinic in Cortez as well as open a facility in Pagosa Springs to serve Archuleta County. It is a well-conceived vision for addressing a long-standing problem.

Heath, at Axis’ helm since 2001, has played the endurance game in pursuing integrated – and adequately funded – health-care services in the region. He long has held that mental and physical health are inextricably linked, and by providing integrated care for both aspects of human wellness, Axis and its partners can improve outcomes.

That holistic thinking makes sense, and his steadfast advocacy for federal designations and their accompanying funding – as well as his dedication to building effective partnerships in the region – is moving this vision to reality.

There still is a great distance to travel, though, and collaboration and communication will be instrumental in the ultimate success of Heath’s endeavor. The effort has gained much more momentum than it ever has previously and, with September’s designation, is poised for further achievements. The wise and efficient use of limited but necessary federal health-care dollars is a critical component of the process and its outcome.

Axis is on the right path to providing necessary, integrated and effective medical care to the entire region – an endeavor whose success has been frustratingly elusive in the past.

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