While a great many U.S. communities continue to look to the federal government or other outside agencies to help with today’s health care challenges – or worse, bury their heads in the sand – El Paso County’s health care leaders have seized the opportunity to work on those challenges by using a combination of information technology, best practices and a collaborative spirit.
The Community Health Partnership, whose mission is to foster a sustainable collaborative organization to address the health care issues for this community, has worked to improve the relationships and communication among agencies concerned with the delivery of health services in El Paso and Teller counties.
CHP members consist of executive leadership and physicians from nearly every health care provider in the region. The organization facilitates high-level, candid discussions to help identify and reduce the “gaps” in the continuum of health care for the community and to help avoid duplication of service among the agencies.
The group is calling on local businesses and community leaders to join them to work on issues such as rising local health care costs, business continuance and the overall wellness and health of the area’s work force.
“Some might find it unusual for competing systems to work together in this fashion,” said Rick O’Connell, CEO of Penrose-St. Francis Health Services and chairman of the CHP Board of Directors. “The challenges from one health care agency to another are very similar: budget cuts, increasing costs, regulations, increasing patient populations, increasing demands on physicians’ time and resources, and so on. Subsequently, it becomes a question of why wouldn’t we work together to address these challenges and share the burden and the responsibility to infuse positive change at the local level.”
As a group, CHP continues to identify and utilize community resources, which then optimize the health care delivery system. It also addresses the shortfalls in care for those who do not have adequate access to care. Additionally, as a community collaborative, CHP monitors relevant public and private health policy and takes a proactive role in influencing actions that will encourage key decision-makers to support positive, proactive health care policy.
One real-time example is the budget shortfall facing the El Paso County Department of Health and Environment. In a non-collaborative setting, the department might have to rely largely on itself for support in the political and funding arena. However, CHP provides the opportunity for all health care agencies to stand as one and help influence policy-makers to see the broader picture and devastating, long-term effects of inaction and under-funding of a public health program.
By continuously reviewing and prioritizing community health care issues, CHP can address the needs in a more timely fashion, assess an impacted organization’s ability to address the needs, provide positive feedback and identify champions and volunteers who are willing to donate time and resources to affect a solution.
CHP successes to date
Since its inception, CHP has created a number of programs which continue to help El Paso County residents and at the same time, attempt to mitigate the cost of providing health care. The initiatives include Coordinated Access to Community Health (CATCH), which works to ensure access to health care for all El Paso and Teller County residents, and HealthTrack (CHPs’ electronic patient tracking system), which seeks to minimize abuse of the region’s emergency departments and primary care sites.
Additionally, CHP has procured a number of federal and state grants to foster programs that help remove barriers to access needs and sustain the collaborative’s programs and deliverables.
The Prescription Assistance Solution Service (PASS) program, for example, has helped hundreds of qualified patients get the medications they need to manage their illnesses. When patients are compliant with their medications, this equals a measurable reduction in emergency department visits and reduction of absenteeism from work.
The PASS program has distributed more than $600,000 in pharmaceutical assistance to hundreds of registered patients during the last 12 months.
Challenges to overcome
Service industry workers in El Paso and Teller counties make up a considerable percentage of the total work force in the region and many are under or uninsured. For many, the decision to pay the power bill or to pay the prescription drug costs to manage an illness is an all too familiar situation. Many seniors and single parents face the same choices, leaving them vulnerable to prolonged or compounded illnesses, or even death.
When an under/uninsured person faces significant or debilitating injury, illness, chronic disease or a child’s illness, virtually everyone is affected: the individual, the family, employers, the health care system, first-responders – all feel the adverse effects from every instance.
Emergency departments are mis-utilized as primary care sites for indigents and under/uninsured. The lack of insurance also leads to increases in emergency calls and co-morbidity rates. Unmanaged illnesses become more complex, more expensive to treat and require longer hospital stays.
Hospitals can and do absorb a large portion of these costs. Volunteer physicians, in the El Paso County Medical Society PracticeNet Solutions program — a business approach to meeting the needs of the uninsured — provide specialty services and medical homes for the expanding population without adequate health insurance.
Still, they cannot do it alone, and everyone in our community will eventually feel the financial strain if we do not find a solution that includes businesses and our elected officials.
Employers may see higher rates of absenteeism at the workplace, higher insurance premiums or the inability to provide insurance to employees, lower productivity and behavioral issues – all of which raise costs and reduce profits.
While CHP has enjoyed a few successes during its 10-year history, the organization recognizes that there’s a “long row to hoe” and it cannot be done without the continued support and involvement from the area’s business community and policy-makers.
“While we will continue to pursue solutions as health care providers and administrators at CHP and within our own agencies, still we can only do so much,” O’Connell said. “Fort Carson’s impending expansion, for example, will place an even greater demand on our local resources for physical, behavioral and rehabilitative health needs in this community. We all welcome the growth; so at the same time, we have to be willing to deal with the inherent challenges of growth. Business and policy leaders working together with CHP will help us, as health care professionals, to better address the needs of the community.”
Dirk Hobbs is secretary for Community Health Partnership Board of Directors and the Publisher of M.D. News Magazines-Southern Rocky Mountain Region and Denver Metropolitan Edition.