Coloradans have spoken, sharing their thoughts about the state of health care.
For the last three years, the Colorado HealthStory team has traveled the state, collecting stories from 230 Coloradans in 27 counties. The project resulted in a top 10 list of recurring issues that define and describe health care in Colorado.
The No. 1 topic in the state was health care coverage and access, which was a major concern for Summit County as well. Summit has higher uninsured rates — close to 30 percent — than the rest of the state, which averages 16 to 18 percent.
On the Colorado HealthStory website, a dozen Summit County residents shared their stories, speaking out on topics from high bills to navigating Medicaid, local clinic care to receiving proper care. HealthStory was a project of the Colorado Rural Health Center, the Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved and ClinicNET, and was funded by the Colorado Trust and the Colorado Health Foundation.
Lamine, an immigrant from Senegal and Summit County resident, tells his health story about a friend too scared of health care bills to seek medical assistance. The website does not publish the last names of people who shared stories.
“I remember a friend was waiting until the point he was crying to go to the doctor,” he said. “He said, ‘If they send me a bill, how am I going to take care of my family? All they know is spending bills, they are not going to fix anything.’ It’s really sad for me to immigrate to the United States and find that the best, the greatest country in the whole world lacks health care.”
Colorado HealthStory began working in 2011 with the goal of encouraging more conversations about health, and making sure those conversations are informed by real-life experiences. Several common health experiences emerged from the stories the project collected, from how difficult it is to access and navigate the health care system, to mental illness and chronic disease.
Sarah Mapes, Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved director of communications, said even with the changes affected by the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, many people will remain uninsured.
Summit County prepared and adopted a Comprehensive Health Strategic Plan in 2008 with a vision that by 2020, the county would offer a continuum of affordable, high quality and culturally appropriate health services to all of its residents.
Arnie is a Dillon resident who shared his story about how he was misdiagnosed with MS instead of diabetes. He talks about his experience and subsequent, more positive interactions with a local clinic.
“The ideal scenario to me would be more equality in health care,” he said. “To where, regardless of your income, you were able to get quality health care without having to jump through hoops without having to beg.”
The HealthStory project showed that even with health insurance, access to specialty care is a concern for residents in Summit County. Some specialty care is not available and residents must leave the area in order to access it.
Joe Sammen, director of community initiatives at the Colorado Coalition, said what was important about the project was it offered qualitative data — personal stories, not just numbers.
“Some of those top 10 things you’d never find in a survey or data collection, like how important people said it was to have a patient-provider relationship,” he said.
Though Summit County has greater access to recreation that enables physical activity, it also has a higher rate of binge drinking and more liquor stores per capita than Colorado as a whole, HealthStory found. Smoking, obesity and preventable hospital stays are below average, but the rates of low birth weights and motor vehicle fatalities are higher.
“In the state, the country, we’ve lost perspective on health care,” Sammen said. “We focus on the cost, the data, and it’s politicized, without remembering the real reason we do the work — people.”
Many Coloradans, including Summit residents, were concerned about mental health. National data show that every year about one in five people experience a mental health issue; that amounts to more than 5,000 Summit residents.
Mapes said the project was an opportunity to simply look at individual communities and put together a picture of the state as a whole. She said while Colorado does well in categories like obesity and general healthy living compared with the country, the state is 47th in overall access and coverage for low-income people.
Jeff is a Summit County resident who shares his story of depression, self-medication and recovery. He talks about the great work of his doctor.
“I feel like a really good person again because I was feeling worthless and my core values were just in the gutter,” he said. “Today I make good choices, I’ve gone year in and year out without any illegal drugs and I’ve had a healthy relationship for three years and I’ve never been in trouble with the law again.”
The Colorado Coalition for the Medically Underserved will work on a “health is local” project next, focusing on four communities, including Summit County, to follow and listen to leaders and residents as the Affordable Care Act progresses, telling the narrative of change.
“For HealthStory, our first goal was to listen and bring those stories into the conversations,” Sammen said. “The second part is to use those stories as a tool to activate new conversations in those communities, asking, ‘What does this mean for us?’”
To hear the Summit County health stories and more from around Colorado, visit www.coloradohealthstory.org.