Axis Health System was one of 19 Colorado health organizations to receive a grant from the COVID-19 stimulus package, directed at supporting construction, expansion and modernization of health care centers.
The organization, which has nine health care facilities throughout the region, received $587,527 from the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus passed by Congress in March. The money is being allocated to institutions and people affected by the pandemic, such as schools, health care facilities and small businesses – as well as unemployed people and working families.
Sen. John Hickenlooper, a member of the Health, Economic, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, said the pandemic created a need to better support health care facilities.
“Health centers across Colorado faced incredible strain during the pandemic,” Hickenlooper said in a news release. “Investing in their growth will greatly improve the lives of thousands of Coloradans.”
Sarada Leavenworth, senior director of Strategy and Development at Axis Health System, said the grant will go toward an expansion project at the Cortez Integrated Healthcare facility. The clinic is one of its six locations that are considered Community Health Centers under the Health Resources and Services Administration, which is why it was eligible for this specific federal funding.
Axis has two different clinics in Cortez, one for dental care and the other for primary and behavioral health. Leavenworth said combining the two clinics into one, with the addition of a pharmacy, will create a truly integrated system and a “one-stop shop” for the community.
“Our focus is to serve medically underserved or vulnerable people who have not had enough access to health care,” Leavenworth said. “Our other focus is to serve the whole community and serve anyone who needs quality health care. By adding dental and pharmacy to a single location, it makes it a lot more accessible to all our patients and especially for those folks who are trying to work around work schedules or child care limitations.”
The money will be used along with other funds collected through fundraising efforts and other grants Axis receives for the project.
Leavenworth said the expansion comes at a crucial time because many people held off on routine checkups and care during the pandemic. She said having all the services in one place will increase the likelihood of people accessing multiple types of care.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41% of U.S. adults had delayed or avoided medical care because of COVID-19 concerns, including routine care and urgent care, by June 2020. A previous Gallup poll found in 2019 that 25% of Americans put off treatment for a serious medical condition because of high costs.
One population that has been severely impacted by the pandemic are those without homes, according to data analyzed by the United Way of the National Capital Area. According to data collected by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, there were 47 people without homes in Montezuma County and 57 in La Plata County in 2021.
The data was collected as part of a point-in-time study, meaning it is a snapshot of homelessness on the night of Jan. 26. Because of the transient nature of the homeless population, the count should be considered an underrepresentation of the actual homeless population, according to the study.
Donna Mae Baukat has been advocating for health services for the homeless population in Durango and the surrounding areas for years. As executive director of Community Compassion Outreach, she aims to help people without homes who are suffering from mental health and substance-abuse problems.
She said she knows all too well that many of those people have avoided visiting the doctor during the pandemic.
“A lot of homeless people decided to isolate themselves in their tents and they became very panicked, they became depressed, lonely,” Baukat said. “We’re one of the few services that opened our doors and I was not afraid to meet new people.”
Baukat is worried the increased stress placed upon the homeless population during the pandemic will translate to increased substance abuse and physical health problems.
“You can imagine the impact on their minds and what happens is that translates to how they feel in their body,” Baukat said. “They’ll get sick or they’ll develop some kind of illness, much quicker, and you’re at high risk for things like heart problems and you have this hyperactivity all the time so your body is always on that fight, flight and freeze. They’re trying to survive out there.”
Axis’ Cortez Integrated Healthcare facility is one of the two facilities, with the other one located in Durango, that specifically aims to help homeless people through its Healthcare for the Homeless program.
Leavenworth said she hopes the expansion and increased funding helps with hiring challenges, especially since the pandemic exasperated those.
“We’ve had to get more creative in our hiring and recruitment approaches because similar to other businesses, we’re finding there’s a limited applicant pool,” Leavenworth said. She doesn’t know if the funding will result in an increased staff overall.
Sen. Michael Bennet and Hickenlooper have both supported other mental health initiatives throughout the pandemic, including Bennet’s Suicide and Crisis Outreach Prevention Enhancement Act, which would increase funding for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline program.
Leavenworth said the grant is an example of how elected officials can raise awareness of issues surrounding access to health care and mental health.
“We really appreciate it when our elected officials vocalize the needs around behavioral health and talk about behavioral health needs because the more we can talk about it and look at it and come up with solutions, the more we can lower the stigma around accessing services,” Leavenworth said.
Kelsey Carolan is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal in Cortez and a senior graduating in December 2021 at American University in Washington, D.C.