Giving Thought: Philanthropists drive effort for better health care at lower cost

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

The magic of philanthropy occurs whenever donors unite around a cause that improves people’s lives.

The causes come in all shapes and sizes from the arts to education to the environment, but today’s column will share a story of donors joining hands to tackle a problem that involves literally everyone’s wallet and general welfare.

First, let me back up and remind everyone of the high cost of health insurance. Until recently there was only one provider serving the valley, and the monthly premiums were among the most expensive in the country.

“If you couple our high cost of living with our small population base, we really are in a difficult situation,” said Jake Mascotte, a former health insurance executive and a current Aspen Community Foundation (ACF) board member.

We tend to think that the vast majority of the Roaring Fork Valley residents are a healthy bunch. However, there is still a small percentage of the population who has’t seen a family doctor in years but go straight to the emergency room when a family member is short of breath or experiencing abdominal pain. What people may not know is that this accounts for the majority of health care costs.

But what if these patients could be persuaded to choose a family doctor, go in for annual exams and preventive care and listen to their doctor’s advice? According to Mascotte, if a greater percentage of locals became engaged in their own health and began a regular, two-way conversation with a primary provider, then the Aspen-to-Parachute region would become a less risky region to insure.

From there, it follows that customers in a more predictable, less risky market will pay lower insurance premiums.

For several years now, the Valley Health Alliance (VHA) has pursued a systemic change in the way locals get their health care, in an attempt to secure “better care, better outcomes and lower costs” in the valley. Central to this effort is connecting as many individuals and families to a primary provider. If primary providers take good care of their patients and help the patients to care for themselves, then costs will drop overall.

“If you become engaged in your own health and become a good (health care) consumer, then it will only make the whole system better,” said Chris McDowell, executive director of the VHA.

When Mascotte learned about the VHA and its approach, he rallied a group of motivated donors to support the VHA and its work. The donors created a new fund at the Aspen Community Foundation to increase the quality and affordability of health care in the region, and they dedicated five years of funding to the mission.

“It’s important to note this is not a slam-bang, six-week effort,” Mascotte said. “It’s going to take a long time, but we can get better and better if we’re all in the game.”

This long-haul cause was not hatched by the Aspen Community Foundation, but a group of donors used the foundation as a vehicle to fund a transformation of local health care.

Colorado’s open enrollment period begins Nov. 1, and I encourage everyone to browse insurance plans on Help is available on the site for those who struggle to understand their insurance options. In fact, money from ACF donors is being used to pay one of those coaches. Many valley residents are eligible for tax credits and subsidies, too.

“We want to help get people signed up on the exchange and find the best health plan to fit their needs,” McDowell said.

Health care is expensive, complex and often frustrating — especially in the Aspen-to-Parachute region — but the VHA is laser-focused on helping any and all locals to find quality insurance at a fair price. This is truly an instance where philanthropy is working to solve problems at a regional scale, and I thank these visionary donors for recognizing the opportunity.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.