It’s no secret that Colorado’s rural areas lack medical services.

According to the Colorado Rural Health Center, an Aurora-based nonprofit organization that serves as Colorado’s state office of rural health, 13 Colorado counties do not have a hospital, and two counties do not have a clinic or even a single doctor.

While Pikes Peak Regional Hospital and a variety of medical practices serve patients in Woodland Park, people who live in the outlying areas of Teller County have limited medical services in their own communities. Getting to a doctor in Woodland Park 25 miles away from Colorado Springs can be difficult, especially in winter.

Premier Rural Medical and Dental, a family-based medical clinic opening Monday, Aug. 13, in Cripple Creek will help alleviate the shortage.

The new clinic, located in the Cripple Creek Medical Plaza off Teller Highway 1, will be open Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Most types of insurance will be accepted immediately, and the clinic will pursue insurance credentialing when necessary for those it does not already have.

A family practitioner, Dr. Robert Reid, along with a registered nurse and medical assistant, will see patients. A front-office manager will round out the staff, scheduling appointments and processing insurance claims.

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The business of the practice will be conducted by Premier Rural Family Medical and Dental Group, a partnership that already operates Forest Edge Dental Care in the Cripple Creek Medical Plaza, along with a Medicaid-based dental clinic in Woodland Park.

“It is our vision to serve people in rural areas with both medical and dental care,” said Greg Rodriguez, lead partner of the group. “If a city approaches us and says, ‘We’d like to have care here,’ it is our intent to go in and open up medical and dental care under one roof. This is our first attempt at doing this.”

Rodriguez, formerly a regional manager for a group of Front Range dental offices; his father, Leo Rodriguez, a dentist in Colorado Springs; and Christopher Osgood, former chief financial officer at Mountain View Medical Group in Colorado Springs, formed the group in 2014 and opened the Woodland Park dental clinic.

At the new Cripple Creek clinic, Greg Rodriguez will manage the business end of the practice, and Osgood will help recruit staff.

Cripple Creek and vicinity, like many rural areas of the state, “is very underserved,” when it comes to health care, Rodriguez said. “When we opened the dental office in Woodland Park, we realized there were needs in the more rural areas of the county.”

Services needed

The town has not had a physician-based clinic since late 2016, when Dr. Kurt Wever, a physician who practiced at the Medical Plaza, moved his practice to Woodland Park.

An urgent-care clinic run by Centura Health at the Medical Plaza closed in early 2017 and merged with a school-based clinic at Cresson Elementary School. Operated by a nurse practitioner, Penrose-St. Francis Primary Care-Cripple Creek offers basic medical services such as annual physicals, well-baby and child check-ups, immunizations, sports physicals, preventive health screenings and outpatient lab and X-ray services.

City officials and concerned citizens in Cripple Creek have been trying ever since to find an occupant for the Medical Plaza facility.

The city had entered into an agreement with a rural medical center and a separate operator to open a clinic at the medical plaza, offering a $100,000 loan to get the facility started.

However, as city officials investigated the principals, they discovered that the proposed operator had been charged with health care fraud, impersonating a physician and other offenses and had served time in jail.

The city canceled the agreement last November.

For that reason, Cripple Creek’s mayor, city council and city administrator “vetted us very thoroughly” when his group presented a proposal to operate the clinic, Rodriguez said.

The city had already purchased exam tables and other equipment for the clinic, Rodriguez said. In addition, the city is providing the clinic with a low-interest line of credit and rent assistance.

“I cannot state how much help we got from the city,” he said. “They really wanted this to happen.”

Reid, who is board-certified in family medicine, said he has always wanted to practice in a rural area. Besides his training in family medicine at the University of Colorado in Denver, he spent two years as a general surgery resident, gaining skills that will enable him to provide urgent as well as primary care for his patients.

Reid had been practicing in Florida and Georgia but last summer bought a house near Divide. He has been commuting to Parker a couple of afternoons a week to teach at Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine and provide urgent care as well.

Through the Teller County Health Department, he learned that Cripple Creek was seeking a physician.

“The timing was perfect,” he said. “It’s taken a while, but everybody’s been committed to it.”

Response time to medical emergencies by EMS providers “is commendable — one of the best features of medical care in the county,” Reid said. “But there’s not much primary care available in Cripple Creek. The school-based clinic is doing a wonderful job, but it’s trying to be many things to many people.”

The new clinic’s goal is to see up to 17 patients a day. There is space available for a pharmacist and an eye clinic.

“If it goes the way I expect it to go, there’s no reason why we can’t expand,” Rodriguez said.

The practice could also have a positive impact on Cripple Creek’s economy.

According to the Colorado Rural Health Center, one rural physician’s employment creates about 23 additional jobs and $889,000 in secondary local revenue.

Joining UCHealth

Pikes Peak Regional Hospital has always had a strong relationship with the UCHealth system, which has provided assistance to patients who needed services the hospital did not provide.

The hospital became a full member of the UCHealth network of health care facilities on April 1. The move was seen as a way for the hospital’s staff and patients to more fully access the resources of UCHealth and Memorial Hospital.

“Becoming part of that family would make care for patients more streamlined,” said Kim Monjesky, Pikes Peak Regional Hospital chief executive officer. “We would do that through integrated health records and systems, common medical staff and a lot of telehealth resources. It made sense to take our relationship to the next level.”

The hospital, which opened 11 years ago, already provided orthopedic and general surgery, internal medicine, 24/7 emergency care, a radiology suite offering different modalities and a team of radiologists, lab services, bone density testing, respiratory services including sleep studies and pulmonary function testing, a cardiac rehabilitation clinic and telestroke services.

“When someone has the symptoms of stroke, we can do telemedicine with a neurologist in Denver and test to see if the patient is a candidate for [Tissue Plasminogen Activator], a drug that increases the chances of recovery from stroke,” Monjesky said. “We can tap right into those specialists without having to transport the patient.”

Now the hospital plans to add a new general surgeon in September and is recruiting heavily in the primary care arena.

“We have seen a lot of turnover across the primary care market,” Monjesky said, adding there is also a need for more specialty services.

“We also are working closely with UCHealth Medical Group to bring more and more specialists up on a rotating basis to provide specialty services,” Monjesky said. “As we experienced with cardiac rehab, if services are not available up here, people will forgo them. … Folks in outlying areas would love to have more services here so they don’t have to drive all the way to Colorado Springs.”

Which services will be added and when is under discussion.

Monjesky said the hospital draws patients from a wide area that includes Douglas and Park counties. Its Level IV emergency room provides around-the-clock emergency services; if patients can’t be treated in Woodland Park, they are transported to Colorado Springs or elsewhere.

“Now that we’re part of the UCHealth family, we can make the continuum of care seamless so the patient can get to the right place that has the right capabilities,” Monjesky said.

“UCHealth is a very innovative organization, always looking at leading-edge types of medical care and evidence-based medicine,” she said. “For us to be part of that system is very rewarding.”