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Axis Health System opens doors at former Mercury building

Health care provider wants to bring integrated medical services under one roof
Sarada Leavenworth, vice president of administration at Axis Health System, gives a tour of the nonprofit’s new building Monday in Durango. The integrated heath care provider bought the former Mercury building in February and spent the last year renovating it for its own purposes. (Shane Benjamin/Durango Herald)

It is move-in week for Axis Health System.

A little over a year after the health care provider purchased the Mercury Building in south Durango for $18 million, health care professionals were able to see patients at the new Durango Integrated Healthcare facility on Monday.

The new location houses the agency’s behavioral health, primary care and dental operations. In addition, Durango Integrated Healthcare will harbor access to an on-site pharmacy.

For the Vice President of Administration Sarada Leavenworth and the Axis team, it’s all about creating a “one-stop shop” environment. Integrated health care has become a trend, especially in rural populations where access to proper health care professionals can be limited.

“We all started to realize, why does behavioral health care, mental health and substance-use treatment kept separate from physical and dental care? It doesn’t make any sense,” she said.

The health care nonprofit occupies all three floors of the 81,000-square-foot building just south of the Durango Mall.

The Columbine behavioral health facility, which is run by Axis and currently located in Bodo Industrial Park, will be moving to the new location on the lower level. In turn, Durango School District 9-R plans to move its administrative offices into the old Columbine facility at 281 Sawyer Drive.

On the second floor, patients are able to access primary care along with the Axis pharmacy. And dental care services will be provided on the third floor, with 13 dentist chairs, some overlooking the Animas River.

Axis Health System spent the better part of a year renovating the former Mercury building in south Durango for its own purposes. The integrated health care facility will house 13 dentists chairs with scenic riverside views. (Shane Benjamin/Durango Herald)

Leavenworth said dental care capacity was an important aspect to the new building because many private dentist offices don’t take certain insurance providers.

“Dental access capacity in Durango is really tough,” she said. “We have a number of private dental practices, but their ability to take a variety of insurance (providers) is pretty limited.”

Axis will also be able to provide insurance enrollment assistance at the new building. The health agency has more than 9,200 patients in La Plata County. Of those patients, 47.8% use Medicaid while 28.4% use private insurance providers.

Also, 12.2% of patients are considered self-pay, which normally indicates they don’t have insurance. Another 11.7% represents Medicare patients.

As a whole, Axis serves more than 18,000 patients across 10 Colorado counties.

Region 9 Economic Development Executive Director Laura Lewis Marchino supports the consolidation of Axis’ various health clinics.

Sarada Leavenworth, vice president of administration at Axis Health System, shows a primary care examination room during a tour of its new building Monday in Durango. The integrated heath care facility will be the home of Axis’ behavioral health, dental and primary care clinics. (Shane Benjamin/Durango Herald)

“They serve a lot of folks with low economic status or challenges, barriers and (for whom) transportation is an issue,” Marchino said. “If you go to your doctor’s appointment, and then you have to go to a different location for a dentist, or end up going to the wrong facility, I think it creates additional barriers.”

She said the new Axis building will provide residents with easier access to care, rather than waiting to go the emergency room.

“I think there has been recognition that there is a gap for folks that are, perhaps, lower economic status,” Marchino said. “And they were typically using emergency rooms if they didn’t have a primary care doctor.”

From an economic perspective, Leavenworth said it is important for workers in Southwest Colorado to have access to an integrated health care facility. La Plata County has many small, privately owned businesses. It is likely that many of those workers are on Medicaid, and, in fact, Axis has 4,000 patients on Medicaid, which backs that assumption, she said.

The Durango Integrated Healthcare building is one of the largest, if not the largest, pieces of industrial real estate in Durango. In total, Axis’ purchase and remodel cost around $27.3 million – $9.3 million went to furnishing and upgrades to the building.

Axis is raising $14 million through a capital campaign. So far, the health agency has received $8.6 million for the project from Axis Board Designated Capital Funding, cash proceeds from the sale of the Columbine Clinic, Colorado Department of Local Affairs, Gates Family Foundation, El Pomar Foundation and others.

Kristal Southcotte, with Axis Health System, comes down the stairs of the nonprofit’s new building Monday in Durango. The new facility will use all three floors of the former Mercury building. (Shane Benjamin/Durango Herald)

There is also $4.4 million in pending funds from a Colorado Health Foundation Grant and cash proceeds from the sale of Axis’ previous administrative office. A donor-giving campaign is also in the process of raising $1 million for the project.

The Durango Integrated Healthcare clinic is also a Colorado Enterprise Zone project.

Marchino said that means donors can receive tax credits if they are contributing to the building’s capital campaign for new equipment, building renovations or building improvements.

In addition to other sources of funding, a new market tax credit helped provided funding for the project.

A new market tax credit program is a federal financial program that aims to stimulate business and real estate investment in low-income or rural communities via a federal tax credit. The federal government incentivizes the investments toward low-income communities by offering a 39 cent tax credit to investors for every dollar expended on the project.

Axis was able to obtain new market tax credit proceeds through the help of Community Healthcare Hospitality Services and Primary Care Development Corp.

Normally, those tax credit programs try to provide 15% to 25% of the project funding.

While it was a large upfront cost, Leavenworth said the result of consolidation will be cheaper long-term. With the high cost of leasing and owning multiple buildings in La Plata County, consolidating should help alleviate costs over time.

The building vastly increases the capacity for Axis to care for patients.

“As a nonprofit health care provider, increasing capacity then increases our viability just like any practice,” Leavenworth said. “For example, adding two additional dentists and an additional hygienist allows us to do a better flow for patients, see more patients and also be more financially powerful.”

In total, Axis employs between 160 and 180 employees at the integrated health clinic. The health care provider is interested in hiring up to 20 new staff members.

Those will include positions in dental, primary care and support staff.

“We’re always encouraging folks to enter the health care field,” Leavenworth said. “Because health care delivery is only as good as the folks working in the field, right? And we have a lot of amazing people.”

There was an exodus of health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic across the United States. That inspired Southwest Colorado educational institutions like Fort Lewis College and Pueblo Community College to begin offering more health care career pathways as a result.

Leavenworth said the health care labor pool has been better to choose from recently but it is still not lush with applicants. However, exterior factors such as the cost of living have played a role in the continuous struggle for the health care industry to find employees.

“We’re not in housing. So we’re not going to lead that charge,” she said. “But we’re very supportive of entities who are, and that’s just one piece that’s challenging for recruitment – but we’re not alone.”


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