Grand County patients bid farewell to several health care professionals
Lately, Grand County patients have been feeling the pain in saying good-bye to their doctors.
Dr. John Wisneski of Middle Park Medical Center announced last month he would be taking a job in New Mexico, and Dr. Shane Tong announced last month that he would also be leaving Middle Park Medical. Dr. Craig Kozak, of Arapaho Chiropractic Center in Winter Park, is close his practice May 14. And Grand County is losing its only pediatric practice in June (See accompanying story, "Grand County community to lose only pediatric practice").
This recent loss of health care professionals is, for the most part, from lack of support by Grand County residents, said Jen Fanning, Grand County Rural Health Network executive director.
Patient out-migration has been a persistent problem in the county over the last decade. In 2005, around 75 percent of patients left the county for care they could receive in the county, Fanning said.
And that percentage hasn't changed much, said Cole White, Middle Park Medical Center chief executive officer. White said he estimated the out-migration rate to be somewhere between 75 and 80 percent.
"We're close enough to Denver that it's not that big of a challenge to jump up over the hump," White said, referring to Berthoud Pass.
It's this out-migration that Fanning says is further reducing available health care services in Grand County, creating a vicious circle of diminishing health care options in the county.
"I think its really important that the community knows that if these are folks and services you want in your community, you need to use them," Fanning said.
Grand County looks toward Health Professional designation
A shortage of health care providers is nothing new for Grand County, Fanning said.
"In general, Grand County has been off and on (being) a Health Professional Shortage Area, meaning we don't have enough health care providers to serve the people in our community," Fanning said.
Any county with no more than one full-time health provider for every 3,500 residents is considered a shortage area. The designation qualifies Grand County for both federal and state financial support including Medicaid reimbursements and loan assistance for doctors. The Health Professional Shortage Area can also help small health care providers negotiate for better insurance rates.
"It's really a good way to help support our rural providers to supply the best care that they can offer," Fanning said.
Last year, the county was just one over the threshold for the designation. It was a tough blow, Fanning said, especially to a rural health care system.
"It's almost like we added too many doctors at one time, and we lost that HPSA designation," White said.
It's a constant balancing act, White said, and the county will be reapplying for the Health Professional Shortage Area designation this year.
But Fanning cautioned that attaining a designation won't solve all of Grand County's health care woes.
"I don't know that we'll ever have a permanent solution for everything we need here," she said.
Some remaining health care providers don't think Grand County is in such a bad spot, despite losing a few health professionals.
"We have a number of stable medical offices that provide excellent care, and there shouldn't be any concern or consternation that patients don't have access to a provider," said Dr. Jeffrey Lipke, of Ten Mile Family Medicine in Granby.
Middle Park Medical looks to hire, diversify services
Middle Park Medical Center is currently working with Rocky Mountain Medical Search, a physician sourcing company based in Denver, to replace its two outgoing physicians, White said.
This could be an opportunity to increase retention by providing services that patients seek elsewhere, White said. Middle Park Medical is currently working with Rocky Mountain Medical Search and Centura Health, which manages the Middle Park Medical Center hospitals, to come up with a staffing model that caters to the county's needs.
Among considerations, White said Middle Park Medical Center would like to broaden its obstetrics-gynecology services to target mothers, who White called the "primary health care decision-makers" in a family. Middle Park Medical Center would also consider hiring a pediatrician to replace services lost with Peak Pediatrics closing.
"We hope that we'll have a new primary care provider over in Kremmling before summer and hopefully a pediatrician or another primary care doctor by the end of summer in Granby," White said.
Overall, White said his organization is working to increase Grand County residents' access to all types of health care. But current employment models mean hospitals are competing for doctors, which means pay and benefits packages are growing. This is an ongoing challenge for small rural health care organizations and those facing financial difficulty.
"It is getting more and more difficult for people like us to entice new talent to the area," White said.
Hank Shell can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19610