Started with just one Nurse Practitioner
By Lynn Volkens
Mountain Family Health Centers (MFHC) celebrated their 35th anniversary on August 16, 2013 with a barbecue at the Black Hawk location on Gregory Street. The health center opened in Black Hawk in 1978, with just one Nurse Practitioner in the second floor of a commercial building just down the street from today’s center. Known then as Columbine Family Health Center, the organization began expanding, crossed the Continental Divide, and now has additional facilities in Basalt, Rifle and Glenwood Springs. Today MFHC counts the total number of patients being served by their four centers at nearly 13,000.
The current location in Black Hawk, at 562 Gregory Street, was made available by the Blake family of that city. Diane (Blake) Rittenhouse attended the celebration, as did other local dignitaries including Gilpin County Commissioner, Gail Watson. Colorado Senator Jeanne Nicholson, unable to attend, issued a proclamation honoring MFHC for “35 years of excellence in delivering accessible community health care to Colorado’s mountain communities.” MFHC’s staff and many of their professional colleagues were there to mark the occasion. A past member of the MFHC Board of Trustees, Fabyan Watrouf joined Rittenhouse and current Trustee, Tom Lambrecht, at a table in the shade to talk about then and now.
In the 1990’s, many of MFHC’s clients were part of the casino industry, using the clinic for screenings, some urgent care and workers compensation needs. The center was open seven days a week. The scope of the practice has changed since then to one of family practice, particularly for members of the community who are uninsured or underinsured. As a Federally Qualified Health Center, MFHC is able to offer access to healthcare programs such as the Colorado Indigent Care Program (CICP), Women’s Wellness Connection (WWC), Child Health Plan Plus, Medicare and Medicaid. MFHC also serves patients with private health insurance from most of the “big” insurance providers (Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Cigna, United, etc.). “Helping people access care is our primary function and mission,” said Mary Coan, MFHC Human Resources Coordinator. To do that in the Black Hawk center, which draws clients from Gilpin and nearby Clear Creek, Jefferson and Boulder Counties, there are two Nurse Practitioners (Carol Holdcroft and Kim Irving) plus Physician’s Assistant, Kelli Eberhardt, working locally. MFHC is able to draw blood and perform some tests in-house, said Irving, often with a next-day turn-around for laboratory work. As the only local healthcare facility, MFHC is the go-to for urgent care, say when a resident cuts his leg with a chainsaw, a fly-fisherman lands the hook in his head, or the guy who arrived with his finger in a jar. MFHC works closely with Gilpin Ambulance Authority and also with Gilpin County’s Public Health Services Coordinator, Ann Marie Bailey. They partner with Jefferson Center Mental Health to provide behavioral health services on-site, two days a week. A future goal is to be able to provide dental care.
MFHC coordinated their anniversary celebration with the observance of National Health Center Week (August 11-17). The care provided by centers like MFHC, especially to uninsured and underinsured patients, is credited with reducing unnecessary health costs at more expensive facilities such as emergency rooms. Funding for the small rural centers is challenging, however. One reason MFHC in Black Hawk doesn’t currently have a doctor on the payroll is that the number of patients has been steadily dropping. “It’s basically use it or lose it,” Commissioner Watson said. (MFHC was forced to close their clinic in Nederland several years ago and has no immediate plans to reopen there.) Lambrecht says that making financial decisions that have the potential to be disruptive is the most challenging aspect of his job as a trustee; being able to provide healthcare to people with limited resources and limited transportation to go elsewhere is most rewarding, he added. He credited the “excellent staff” for making that happen and is encouraged by the recent (July) hiring of a new Chief Executive Officer. “The new CEO, Ross Brooks, is incredible,” he said. All of the MFHC staff, who repeatedly referred to themselves as a “great team” and “like family,” are dedicated to continuing to provide health care services in Gilpin County.
MFHC is currently offering $40 sports physicals for students, as well as a complete checklist of children’s immunizations and screenings. In the near future, now that kids are back in school and moms have some time to take care of themselves, will be “deeply discounted” Women’s Wellness services. Visit www.mountainfamilyhealth.org for more information about Mountain Family Health Centers.