Longtime Carbondale doctor retiring but staying on forefront of valley’s health care concerns
Dr. Gary Knaus plans to give more time to Valley Health Alliance
Dr. Gary Knaus is more of a “big picture person,” in his own words.
So, it should stand to reason that his retirement after 43 years with Roaring Fork Family Practice in Carbondale won’t be a complete retirement from health care matters in the region.
Knaus will no longer be seeing patients come the new year, as the Rifle native and longtime Carbondale family doctor concludes a career that has seen a lot of changes over the years.
He still plans to put all those years of experience toward his continued work with the Valley Health Alliance as a board member and medical director.
“I’ve been doing that in my spare time,” Knaus said, “but now I’ll have more time to put into that work, and I think we’re on the cusp of some good things.”
The Valley Health Alliance started in 2014 by a group of mostly Pitkin County employers to improve access to health care and work to control the cost of care and insurance in the region.
It has since grown to include the chambers of commerce from Aspen to western Garfield County and the major providers serving the region.
“One of the things that I really enjoy is talking about system things and transforming medicine away from some of the things that we don’t like about it toward more the things that will benefit patients and communities,” Knaus said.
The Valley Health Alliance is a forum to do that, with a growing emphasis on the importance of primary care and making sure people have access to that basic level of care.
“When people have a primary care provider, they get better quality, they get better access, they get better costs,” he said.
Now with about 7,000 insured residents under the umbrella of the Valley Health Alliance, he said the goal is to proactively manage that care, focusing more on prevention, early intervention and integrated health care and avoiding the higher costs that result when things go unchecked.
“The goal is to have a primary care source, so people don’t have to go to the emergency room for a cold,” Knaus said.
The Alliance’s efforts have also resulted in the establishment of urgent care facilities across the region, which has helped control emergency room costs.
Addressing mental health, integrated care management and even things like food insecurity and other social challenges that can impact health are also part of what Knaus calls “practice transformation.”
Knaus notes that one of the major drivers of health care costs is when someone ends up in the ER or is readmitted to the hospital within 30 days after they’ve been seen and treated for a condition.
Sometimes it’s because they didn’t understand a medicine that was prescribed, or maybe they couldn’t afford to buy their medicine, he explains.
“We’re trying to cover all those bases … and making sure our patients are doing OK, that they have all the resources they need, and reminding them that we’ll be seeing them again within a few days,” Knaus said.
That advanced level of primary care already has started to bring costs down for the employers who work with Valley Health Alliance, he said.
“With the cost of health care, some of it’s about how much we do, some of it’s about the price of what we do, but a lot of it’s about how well we do it and how efficient we are in doing it,” he said.
Knaus, 72, was born in Glenwood Springs at the Hot Springs resort, when a portion of the historic lodge served as a hospital.
He grew up in Rifle before studying at Colorado State University, where he met his future wife, retired Carbondale teacher Jill Knaus, and went on to earn his medical degree at CU-Boulder.
Following his residency in Greeley, he reached out to a fairly new family practice in Carbondale that had been started by Dr. Rick Herrington. Gary and Jill Knaus moved to Carbondale, and Gary began working alongside Dr. Herrington in 1978.
“It was just the two of us, and back then it was kind of what you’d call a cottage industry, where you have your own small business, pay the bills and do all the hiring, and take care of people,” Knaus said of what at the time was known as Roaring Fork Family Physicians.
Together, they were part of a new wave of family doctors as the general practice profession transformed and evolved through the 1970s and 1980s. More doctors were looking to locate in rural communities, and as the small towns of the Roaring Fork Valley grew, more doctors were needed.
“One of the things that was unique about this community is that it was easier to build relationships and get to know your patients, because you’re taking care of every member of their family,” Knaus said. “Over time, you trust your patients, and they trust you, and it’s just that spirit of mutual respect.
“That’s really one of the values we’ve tried to carry through and persist with, and just the essence of what we try to do.”
While Dr. Herrington and his wife, Sherry, held down the business side of things with the practice, it allowed Knaus to focus on some broader pursuits.
“I’m more of a big-picture kind of person, so we really made a good team,” he said.
Eventually, the practice grew to include additional doctors, physicians assistants and nurses, and Knaus branched out into various community service roles, serving on the Roaring Fork School District Board, and on the board of directors for Rocky Mountain Health Plans. He was also a founding member of the Mount Sopris Nordic Council and more recently served on the Aspen Valley Land Trust board.
Knaus was named Colorado Family Physician of the Year by the Colorado Academy of Family Physicians in 2018.
Herrington, who has also since retired, recalled that Knaus gave up his summer vacation to join the practice in 1978, as Rick and Sherry were expecting their second child.
“He arrived just in time for me to take a week off to take care of our 3-year-old son, and help Sherry recover from a C-section,” Herrington said.
“Gary has always been a contributor to our community and the many organizations he has been part of,” Herrington said. “Beyond all his recognitions and service, Gary has been my valued partner and friend. He has a genuine concern for people — patients and their families, his colleagues and our many employees over the 40-plus years.
“Gary is a lifelong learner, an avid reader, astute listener and observer, and has great intuition,” Herrington added. “His next role as mentor is a logical transition toward retirement.”
A family affair
Accompanying Gary and Jill when they arrived in Carbondale was their baby son at the time, Chad. For the past several years, Chad has worked alongside his dad as a physician at Roaring Fork Family Practice, which in 2011 became part of the Valley View Hospital network.
“You know, we never really talked about him going into medicine,” Knaus recalled. Degrees in history and Spanish prompted him to go back to medical school.
After his residency in Grand Junction, Chad joined the Carbondale practice for a few years before he and his family spent a year in Central and South America providing care as part of a global relief organization, which he remains involved with.
That work has taken him to Africa, Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean to assess and help with health needs in those regions.
The Knaus’ daughter, Megan, works as a physicians assistant with Mountain Family Health Centers in the area.
That has kept all of the grandchildren close, Knaus said, “so that’s been a real treat.”
Gary and Jill Knaus just celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary.
In addition to continuing his work with the Valley Health Alliance and possibly helping some with the local nursing home, Knaus said he looks forward to some more traveling, gardening and tending for a small vineyard they keep at their home on Prince Creek south of Carbondale.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or email@example.com.
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