Grand Valley health care executives talk shop

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Chris Thomas
Jeff Kuhr

Grand Valley residents benefit from a health care industry that offers advanced services close to home and a collaborative response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the sector faces challenges, among them staffing shortages, thin margins and competition from Front Range providers, local executives say.

A panel of five health care executives answered questions about a range of subjects as part of a presentation at an annual health care summit staged by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

Bryan Johnson
William Cummins
Sharron Raggio

The panel included Chris Thomas, president and chief executive officer of Community Hospital; Bryan Johnson, president of SCL Health St. Mary’s Medical Center; William Cummings, associate vice president of business development and rehabilitation at Family Health West; Sharon Raggio, president and CEO of Mind Springs Health; and Jeff Kuhr, director of Mesa County Public Health.

Asked to discuss some of the advantages the local health care industry enjoys, the panelists cited the level of services offered and collaborative approach.

Thomas said a “robust” system enables patients to receive even advanced services close to home. While providers compete, they also collaborate.

Johnson agreed. “We are here for the betterment of the community.”

Kuhr said that collaboration has been especially apparent in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic over the past 20 months. “We all work together as a single entity.”

The industry offers additional care through telehealth and services delivered through telecommunications.

“Telehealth has been awesome,” Raggio said. Computers and telephones have played an important role during the pandemic in connecting patients with behavioral health care providers.

Cummings said Family Health West relies on telehealth to provide specialty care.

Johnson said St. Mary’s collaborates with Intermountain Health Care to use remote services for intensive care, Johnson said. The services include monitoring patients and consultations with ICU physicians. The arrangement provides backup, particularly on nights and weekends, as well as offers more safe and effective care at a lower cost, he said.

The use of telehealth during the pandemic has demonstrated its growing popularity and could be used to deliver more services to patients in their homes, he said.

Kuhr said virtual visits offered through telehealth have eliminated some of the barriers people face in accessing health care and other resources.

The health care industry in the Grand Valley also faces challenges, however, the panelists said.

Asked about what keeps them up at night, Johnson said, “It’s staffing, staffing, staffing. That’s what keeps us awake at night.”

Raggio said Mind Springs Health also has experienced staffing shortages, especially for nurses, at its West Springs psychiatric hospital in Grand Junction and other operations across the Western Slope.

The panelists also cited thin margins threatened by rising costs.

While St. Mary’s Medical Center strives to maintain an overall margin of about 3.5 percent, the cost of supplies has increased 6 percent to 7 percent and the cost of labor has gone up 5 percent to 6 percent, Johnson said.

Factor in competition from Front Range providers, and it becomes more difficult for the Grand Valley health care industry to maintain some high-end service lines, he said. “They do get very, very fragile very quickly.”

Thomas said local health care providers must figure out ways to sustain those services to provide local care. “It’s not an option.”

There’s continued pressure, though, to cut health care costs, the panelists said. And that could require a more proactive approach over the long term.

Thomas said Community Hospital enjoys strong margins in part because of lower overhead costs. But it’s difficult to pass savings on to patients when the money goes instead to insurers.

Ultimately, access to preventive family care will help lower health care costs, he said. “It’s lot less epensive to stay healthy than it is to fix you.”

Johnson said the best way to lower health care costs is to promote physical and mental wellness and keep people out of the health care system. And when they do require care, it’s less costly to provide it close to home.

Raggio agreed it’s important to invest in wellness, including behavioral health. The pandemic has only exacerbated anger, divisiveness and other issues, she said. “This has been a difficult period to get through.”

Businesses and individuals can join in efforts to curb health care costs, the panelists said, including costs associated with COVID-19.

“COVID is going to stay around,” Kuhr said, and vaccinations could be needed every year. “We’re always going to have to think about it.”

Thomas said COVID has had big effects on the local work force, but vaccinations could mitigation them. “The vaccines are working, guys.”

Cummings agreed. “Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate.”

Moreover, there’s greater awareness now that if employees are sick, they should stay home rather than come to work, he said.

Raggio said business owners need to take care of themselves even as they strive to care for their employees.