BASALT - Visiting Mountain Family Health Center in Basalt isn't much different than setting foot inside any other doctor's office in the Roaring Fork Valley. It's where area residents go for everything from routine checkups to the treatment of everything from chronic ailments to the common cold. That's the whole point.
What's different about the clinic is its patient base. They are individuals who, though they are often employed, don't have access to affordable health insurance, or they're insured through Medicare or Medicaid - programs that often make finding a provider in private practice difficult.
The Basalt clinic, an offshoot of Mountain Family in Glenwood Springs, opened in 2011 and is now serving 1,000 patients in the upper Roaring Fork Valley, driving the need to expand its hours of operation from four days a week to five.
"The expansion of the clinic in Basalt was really predicated on people in the upper valley not being able to access health care by more traditional means," said Ross Brooks, executive director of Mountain Family, which began with a clinic in Black Hawk and now operates in Glenwood, Rifle and Basalt. "Basalt is the smallest of my four clinics, but it's the fastest growing, as well."
By comparison, the Glenwood clinic serves about 6,500 patients. Overall, in the four communities where it operates, Mountain Family serves close to 12,600 patients and employs about 100 staffers.
Mountain Family operates with support from federal and state sources, but it is not a free clinic. Patients pay on a sliding scale, based on income, and the clinic helps patients obtain public health insurance if they qualify.
"Everybody pays something toward the cost of their care," Brooks said.
The Basalt clinic also gets support from Aspen Valley Hospital and Pitkin County's tax-supported Healthy Community Fund. The hospital kicked in about $80,000 last year, according to CEO David Ressler.
"It's money very well spent, in my opinion," he said.
Mountain Family gives low-income patients who might not otherwise seek out preventative health care, or any health care at all until they have an acute need, a place to go for regular, long-term care.
"It's about taking what is otherwise a high-risk population and leveling the playing field, allowing them to live healthy lifestyles," Ressler said. "It's about finding a medical home, so to speak, for these patients."
At one time, the hospital operated indigent-care clinics in Aspen and Basalt but didn't have enough patients to succeed. When Mountain Family opened its doors in Glenwood, the hospital supported that clinic instead, but it meant upvalley patients and children had to travel all the way down the valley for care.
When federal rules changed, allowing Mountain Family in Glenwood to open a satellite office outside its defined service area as long as the operation wasn't subsidized with federal dollars, the hospital and county stepped up to cover any costs not paid through insurance or patient payments, according to Ressler. Mountain Family operates out of the hospital's After-Hours Medical Care at no charge; the hospital's clinic is open evenings and weekends, leaving it available for Mountain Family's daytime use.
Anyone can use Mountain Family's services, including those who have adequate health insurance. Basalt resident David Harding, a well-known guitarist on the local music scene, doesn't have insurance, but if he did, the Basalt center would remain his choice for medical care, he said.
Harding had insurance until he was dropped by his plan after a procedure several years ago. Then he sought out Mountain Family in Glenwood until the Basalt clinic opened. He credits the staff in Basalt with saving his life.
He came to the clinic to have his leg looked at after a minor motorcycle mishap and his caregiver noted a heart murmur during the examination. He had a defect that had not been audible previously.
A visit to a cardiologist in Grand Junction led to heart surgery last May; afterward, the surgeon estimated Harding had about two weeks of function left in the heart valve without the repair. The Colorado Indigent Care Program helped cover the cost of his surgery, though he still faces bills.
"I was just very lucky all the way around. I am so grateful to these guys," said Harding during a routine visit last week to Mountain Family, where he and the staff greet each other warmly, on a first-name basis.
"I can tell you, these guys are so good, and they're just so pleasant," Harding said. "It's just like family."
Health-care reform may give more of Mountain Family's patients access to some type of health insurance in the coming years, but Brooks doesn't see Mountain Family disappearing, in part for reasons that go beyond the financial aspects of health care. Access to insurance is only half of the battle.
"Our quality and our outcomes are as good as anywhere else," he said. "We'll still be around."