Giving Thought: Caring for the region’s most vulnerable patients |

Giving Thought: Caring for the region’s most vulnerable patients

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

Ask about Mountain Family Health Centers’ mission, and CEO Ross Brooks will start with this statement: “I have a strong head and heart belief that access to affordable health care is a human right and not a privilege.”

The organization began in 1978 as a locally governed, locally delivered health care clinic, chiefly for miners and their families, in Blackhawk. Twenty years later, the first Western Slope clinic launched in Glenwood Springs, which now serves as a hub for a network of five clinics in the Roaring Fork and Colorado river valleys.

Brooks has worked in the community health center movement for 15 years, and has run Mountain Family since 2012.

Aspen Community Foundation: Please give us a brief overview of Mountain Family Health Centers.

Ross Brooks: We provide affordable health care to people in need, to vulnerable populations. We serve as the medical, dental and mental health home for more than 17,000 people at five clinical delivery sites in Glenwood, Basalt, Rifle, Edwards and Avon.

ACF: Who are your clients and customers?

RB: The makeup of our patients is about 60 percent Latino and 40 percent non-Latino. So, they’re ethnically diverse. About half of our patients are better served in Spanish than English. From an income standpoint, about half of our patients are under the federal poverty level of $12,000 a year.

Seventeen thousand human beings is a lot, but we’re only meeting about half the need. In the area we serve — Pitkin, Garfield, Eagle and part of Rio Blanco counties — there are 36,000 human beings who live on less than $24,000 a year. As anyone from this region knows, that is not a sustainable living wage. At Mountain Family, it’s our mission to ensure those folks have access to affordable care.

It’s a misnomer to think of our patients as nonworking people who rely on entitlement programs. We know that three quarters of our Medicaid patients — Medicaid is health insurance for low-income people in our state — have active employment. And another important group is those who don’t qualify for Medicaid.

A third of our patients are uninsured, and many in that group are working immigrants.

ACF: How do you pay your bills if so many of your patients cannot pay?

RB: If you come into Mountain Family, we try to get you into a health insurance program. We’re going to help you qualify for Medicaid, or if you’re over 65 we’re going to help you qualify for Medicare. If you’re in that third of folks who still won’t qualify for those programs, then you go on our sliding fee scale. We have tiers of payment based on your income and ability to pay. Whoever you are, our charges still tend to be significantly lower than the rest of the market.

We employ over 160 staff members and our payroll and benefits are close to $10 million annually, so we’re a medium-sized employer in this region.

Our revenue comes from multiple places. At a high level it comes from federal and state grants. It comes from patient services revenue, meaning revenue from health insurers, from Medicaid to private insurance. The third important bucket is gifts, grants and the goodwill of local communities. In that I include partnerships with Aspen Community Foundation, the spaces and subsidies donated by hospitals where we operate our clinics (including Aspen Valley Hospital, Valley View Hospital, and Vail Valley Medical Center), support from county governments and others. Another major financial player is Rocky Mountain Health Plans, which has invested in our integrated care model more than any other player.

ACF: What’s on the horizon for your organization? Any post-election concerns?

RB: We have three main concerns. The first is repeal of the Affordable Care Act without a well-thought-out replacement strategy. We’ve joined with chambers of commerce, businesses and consumer rights advocate groups calling for reasonable solutions. If Obamacare is repealed without a replacement, that puts at risk about 10,000 of our 17,000 patients. Either they won’t have health insurance anymore or Mountain Family will be cut and they won’t have Mountain Family as their health care home.

Second, we’re concerned with the talk around Medicaid block grants. We don’t think it’s viable to try to balance the federal budget on the backs of low-income patients. Cutting service or reimbursement for Medicaid patients is penny-wise and pound-foolish. Third is our own community health care model, under which we get federal grants to serve the uninsured. Those grants have been supported on both sides of the aisle for 50 years. We want to make sure those investments continue.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.