Sue Birch, Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association chief executive officer, talks Wednesday about the process of applying for federal recovery dollars. Birch recently visited the nation's capitol to participate in the National Community Health Center Policy Forum. "It certainly is the most fast-paced funding environment we've ever had to respond to," she said. "It literally changes weekly, the information coming out of Washington," D.C.

Photo by Hans Hallgren

Sue Birch, Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association chief executive officer, talks Wednesday about the process of applying for federal recovery dollars. Birch recently visited the nation's capitol to participate in the National Community Health Center Policy Forum. "It certainly is the most fast-paced funding environment we've ever had to respond to," she said. "It literally changes weekly, the information coming out of Washington," D.C.

VNA receives $130,378 in stimulus funds

Clinic receives stimulus to expand program

By Ben Bulkeley, Daily Press writer

As part of the $7.5 million in federal stimulus money approved March 27 for Colorado community health centers, the Northwest Colorado Community Health Center in Craig will receive $130,000.

Gisela Garrison, Community Health Center director, said the additional funding would be used to hire extra staff and to expand the programs.

The Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association operates the Community Health Center.

"The money from the federal government will allow us to increase our services and be able to serve more people," Garrison said.

"We will have staffing set up to be able to work on Saturdays and expanded hours during the week. We serve the working poor, and it's often challenging to schedule appointments from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m."

The extra money also will allow the Community Health Center to offer more primary care services.

Garrison said the clinic, which currently has one physician, serves more than 1,000 people per year in the building and "nearly three times as many in visits."

"Typically, someone will have more than one visit per year," she said. "With the extra help, we hope to be able to serve 600 unduplicated clients."

Garrison said if more funding is made available, the Community Health Center would look for additional space.

"It's really tentative, but we do need a larger space to serve more people," she said. "We're a little tight on space, but we hope there will be more stimulus funding available."

It is unknown when the Community Health Center will receive the federal money, but Garrison said she expects it within the next 10 days.

Getting the extra money is important, Garrison said, because the need for affordable health care is increasing.

"And as demand and development increases, so does the need for low-cost health care," she said. "We're always investing in and increasing our client-base."

Local politicians aren't the only ones waiting for federal recovery dollars.

Sue Birch, chief executive officer of the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, returned late last week from Washington, D.C.; a trip she said was pleasantly surprising.

Although most everything related to federal recovery funding is up in the air - for instance, how much money is available and what strings are attached to approved grants - it seems Congress is committed to furthering the "community health center movement," Birch said.

"We know this is the most cost-effective way to do primary care, both for the patients and the providers," she said, referring to general medical treatment for patients who do not need a hospital stay.

Community health centers, such as the one operated by and located within the VNA Craig office since October 2008, charge patients on an income-based, sliding-fee scale. The rest of the clinic's income is paid through government and private grants, as well as through local partnerships, such as VNA's relationship with Moffat County United Way.

The VNA has less debt from unpaid bills because its patients can pay the more affordable rates, which helps the health center and its physicians stay afloat.

She was glad to see politicians on the east coast recognize how community health centers can affect the medical industry and support those without insurance.

"I learned there is significant bipartisan support, based on the years of data for community health centers and how they reach the uninsured and underinsured, for funding community health center operations : and capital programs," she said. "Our region is in a really good position to advance both primary care and preventative care."

In the current economy, affordable health centers such as the VNA have become more widely used as people lose their jobs and insurance coverage, said Polly Anderson, Colorado Community Health Network policy director.

In an effort to assist health centers during the recession, the U.S. government allocated $338 million nationally for Increased Demand for Services grants, intended specifically to fund operations as the nation's uninsured population grows.

The Northwest Colorado VNA received $130,378 of Colorado's $7.6 million total allocation, which it will use to partly fund a new nurse practitioner recruited from Maine, a new medical assistant position and extra hours for Spanish interpreters.

Health centers across the country also will have access to about $1.5 billion for capital construction projects, Anderson said, though the rules for those funds have not been established.

Birch said her organization has submitted a preliminary wish list for possible projects, mostly focusing on what to do with the health center's current location in the old The Memorial Hospital building.

With the right funding, the VNA could add a second floor to its existing space, build office or clinical rooms in the basement or remodel the rest of the hospital building after TMH moves to its new facility under construction on the west side of Craig if the VNA purchases the facility.

It all depends on what best fits the needs and desires of the community, the VNA board, local officials and the hospital, and what restrictions are put on the funding, Birch said. For instance, VNA couldn't remodel the existing building if the money can be used only for new construction.

She added the VNA should learn Friday whether it was awarded a separate $85,000 grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration that would pay for architectural research and a public outreach campaign to gather feedback on what would be the best use of the current TMH building.

Not everything is going well for clinics like the one run by the VNA, however.

At the same time national authorities seem to be pouring more money into community health projects, state officials are considering pulling back because of the budget crisis.

As of Tuesday, the Legislature's Joint Budget Committee still had to cut $300 million in expenditures for the next fiscal year beginning July 1.

Anderson said community health centers likely would lose access to $2.7 million in state grants and possibly could see reductions in other areas such as Medicaid reimbursements.

She cautioned that the federal government's recovery funds are one-time bonuses, and will not supplant the need for dedicated state funding.

"While this influx of dollars from the feds is incredibly important and appreciated, our health centers' fiscal stability is dependent on state funding," Anderson said.

As of press time Wednesday, the Joint Budget Committee had not released its final recommendations to the Legislature, but it plans to do so this week.

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