Local Navigators Bring Health & Hope To West End Residents

Local Navigators Bring Health & Hope To West End Residents

Tri-County Health Network’s Navigator Program helps residents deal with complexities of health care

From Left: Thea Wagler, Veronica “Skitter” Jones, Deon Tempfer

From Left: Thea Wagler, Veronica “Skitter” Jones, Deon Tempfer

The San Miguel watershed, although known for its natural beauty, contains some of the most rural and isolated towns in the country, which lack access to most of the services towns take for granted. Traveling downstream from the affluence of Telluride, the scenery, economy and lifestyles change rapidly. Isolation becomes an everyday part of life for the citizens of these smaller rural towns, including Bedrock, Norwood, Nucla, Naturita, Redvale, and Paradox.

Research is clear that local “Health Navigators” are the most effective means to directly improve the health status of rural populations and bridge the gap where there is a shortage of doctors and medical professionals. In this underserved region, Navigators help fill the medical void, providing insurance enrollment, biometric testing that screens for past, current or future medical issues, and wellness classes for populations who would otherwise go without care. As a regional leader in healthcare, Tri-County Health Network (TCHNetwork) has a team of five Health Navigators whose mission is to reshape rural health and healthcare access. Although they work individually on a daily basis, the TCHNetwork team brings services to the underserved populations in the West End of Montrose and San Miguel counties.

As a born and raised “West Ender,” Michaela Vannest has been working as an insurance Enrollment Navigator with TCHNetwork, helping qualified children and adults enroll in Medicaid and Child Health Plus (CHP+), as well as managing the Skippy dental program that serves the West End schools twice each year. “Each day is different and it really depends on the daily task. I meet clients at their house, the library or even my house if necessary,” said Michaela. Because she calls the West End her home, clients are more comfortable working with Michaela rather than with someone who does not know the area and culture. “I have an upper hand when it comes to getting them to open up their personal lives to me. The ability to say I am from their town lets my clients put their guard down, and I can relate to them, especially when it comes to the confusing topic of healthcare.” With 18% of the population below the federal poverty level, Michaela knows her work helping to enroll residents in health insurance programs is only just beginning.

Another TCHNetwork Navigator, Thea Wagler has lived in Nucla for approximately 8 years. Similar to Michaela, Thea educates members of her community and enrolls them in the new health insurance marketplace, Connect for Health Colorado. Although Michaela focuses solely on income based medical insurance (Medicaid and CHP+), Thea helps all members of the community, offering plans that fit their individual and family needs. Similar to her counterpart, Thea’s daily routine constantly changes as she travels to meet with clients. Depending on the daily schedule, she meets clients at the Naturita Library, the TCHNetwork office in Norwood, or even at their homes. Thea understands the community’s frustrations, “Health insurance is confusing, and I have heard from most of my clients that they would not be able to do this without my help.” According to the Colorado Health Institute, the uninsured rate of Montrose County is 18.5%, with adults who are eligible but not enrolled in Medicaid at 22.7%.

To address the shortage of medical professionals in the West End, TCHNetwork employs Clinical Navigators to help meet the health needs of West End patients. Patient Health Navigator (PHN) Veronica “Skitter” Jones assists Basin Clinic patients with lifestyle changes to overcome cardiovascular disease (CVD) and chronic diseases. Skitter’s daily tasks include working one-on-one with chronic disease patients from the Basin Clinic in Naturita and helping patients adjust their lifestyles to meet goals prescribed by their doctors as well as their individual goals. Following a doctor visit, Skitter meets with each patient to discuss the doctor’s instructions and provide education and referral counseling.  Skitter believes, “If you can help one person improve their health, it can become a generational trend. Parents teach children the good things in life and they continue the education onto other generations.” Montrose County lines up with the rest of Colorado with an obesity rate of 20% and 46.2% classified as overweight. Skitter helps her patients understand the direct health risks obesity has on daily life, such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes.  She offers them simple behavioral changes, such as exercising more, eating healthier foods, and drinking and smoking less.

Skitter refers patients for free community services to lifelong friend and fellow Navigator Deon Tempfer, referred to as a Community Health Worker (CHW). Deon helps participants at risk for heart disease and strokes with follow up calls and visits to reassess their risk factors and provide free biometric testing and education. Deon measures patients’ blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and weight and refers them to healthy living resources such as walking clubs, medical clinics, diabetes management classes, and nutrition programs. In addition to her role as a CHW, Deon works as a Senior Service Coordinator for Region 10, assessing seniors who are in need for home health services. In an area without hospice care and elderly services, an increasing percentage of the population is forced to live independently, regardless of their ability to do so. Homemaker services through Region 10 and Montrose County Nursing help the aging population in the West End maintain their dignity and remain in their homes.  Deon sums up her work in the West End the best: “I love this place that I call home. Many people and services have left this area, leaving us and this beautiful place behind. We are forced to take care of the people we love.”

It is easy to see how much Deon, Skitter, Thea, Michaela care for the communities in which they live. Providing services to their friends and family keep them motivated to work harder and reach out to more of their neighbors in need.  While the proximity of comprehensive medical care is at an uncomfortable distance in the isolated communities of the West End, the Navigators wouldn’t trade their small town, rural lifestyles. “We get the opportunity to live in the most beautiful, friendly place in the world” says Skitter. “How often do you get to travel 10 minutes and feel like you are in a far off land, away from anything and everyone? The West End certainly has its hardships, but for those who call it home, one can certainly understand the appeal.”

Formed in 2009, TCHNetwork is comprised of a group of health care providers in southwest Colorado within the counties of Montrose, Ouray and San Miguel that are committed to improving the quality and coordination of health and healthcare services in this tri-county region by increasing access to healthcare and integrative health services at lower costs through collaboration and innovation.  The tri-county area is an officially designated “Health Professional Shortage Area.” All of TCHNetwork members are nonprofit organizations with unique designations; three of the participating clinics are classified as true “Frontier Clinics,” serving remote rural populations with no alternative health care services within a 100 mile radius.

As part of its strategic plan, TCHNetwork operates a number of Community Outreach Programs that serve a vital role in filling the void of access to critical healthcare by assuring care is accessible, affordable and available to all populations living in the rural three county region regardless of socioeconomic status. Programs include: San Juan Kids Cavity Prevention Program (Skippy); Insurance Coverage Assistance Program; Regional Medical Shuttle Program; Community Health Worker Preventive Care Outreach; and Patient Health Navigator Chronic Care Outreach. For more information, visit: www.tchnetwork.org.

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