An experienced health-care manager from Wisconsin has been hired for 18 months to find a solution to the shortage of primary-care providers in La Plata County.Julie Thompson, a division administrator at a health clinic in Minocqua, Wis., is scheduled to begin work the last week of this month. Thompson, 55, moved to Durango recently with her husband, Scott, a retired school teacher. She was hired through a grant from the Colorado Health Foundation to help a volunteer steering committee in La Plata County.
"At the end of 18 months we'll have a strategic plan for providing health care in La Plata County," said Missy Rodey, who has coordinated the search for a project director. "Julie has experience in the areas that we recognize we have to spend time looking into here."
Thompson said Thursday by phone that she has her work cut out for her.
"Health care in rural areas is a challenge across the country," Thompson said. "I have a lot to learn and a lot of people to talk to."
Challenges such as government reimbursement, the ability of patients to afford insurance and recruiting physicians transcend any single geographical region, she said. Also, it will be necessary to see what President Obama's health-reform package offers.
The volunteer Citizens Health Advisory Council and the Health Services Steering Committee formed two years ago when Alamosa-based Valley-Wide Health Systems pulled up stakes, leaving thousands of patients without primary care.
La Plata County, the city of Durango and Mercy Regional Medical Center stepped up to open a health clinic that was expected to provide medical attention for a year until a permanent replacement for Valley-Wide was found. The county and city each contributed $100,000 to the effort, with Mercy footing the rest, which amounts to about $250,000 a year. The county has continued funding at the initial level but the city has cut its contribution in half.
John Snow Inc., a consultant with international experience, was hired for well within the $150,000 limit set for the work. The firm recommended a series of moves to provide ongoing primary health care. Out of the recommendations came the search for a project coordinator because the volunteers were suffering from burnout.
The $189,378 grant from the Colorado Health Foundation is to cover a three-quarters-time position for 18 months. Thompson will be paid $55 an hour as a consultant. The grant also will cover expenses she accrues, including research and conducting periodic community focus groups, Rodey said.
Thompson worked in Min-ocqua for the Marshfield Clinic, one of the largest physician-owned practices in the nation. Marshfield has 800 physicians at 43 locations in the northern two-thirds of the state.
Thompson's job covered a number of duties. She has experience with reimbursement associated with government-paid care; coordination of services with Native American tribes; electronic medical rec-ords; integration of physical, mental and dental care; recruitment and retention of health-care providers; and telemedicine - the use of technology to access expertise not available locally.
Perhaps particularly related to providing access to primary health care in La Plata County is her experience working in rural areas of northern Wisconsin.
Rodey, a dietitian with a master's degree in public health, said 25 applicants sought the consulting job, virtually all of them from Southwest Colorado. Four were called for interviews, Rodey said.