Within debate, agreement: Hospice plays a key role in health care continuum

During the national discussion on health care reform that’s been going on over the past year, many people who normally disagree on issues seem to agree on one point — home care for patients in their latter years is more enjoyable and less expensive than treatment in hospitals or nursing homes.

That said, the next step is to assess how long a person might be able to live at home while still undergoing treatments late in life.

“There’s a push to make sure that people are where they need to be,” said Sally Schaefer, chairwoman of the local Health Care Development Council and a board member of the Colorado Health Foundation. Schaefer is a proponent of the cooperative medical care offered in Mesa County.

“Mesa County has been very creative in the continuum of care,” Schaefer said.

The Mesa County health care system, recognized during a visit from President Barack Obama in 2009, includes cooperation among physicians, health insurers, low-income health providers, the Marillac Clinic and Hospice and Palliative Care of Western Colorado.

“Most of the medical cost is in the last two years of life,” Christy Whitney, chief executive officer of Hospice and Palliative Care of Western Colorado, said during an interview last year. “When they’re in hospice, the costs are lower.”

While the hospice features a highly visible campus on 12th Street in Grand Junction, most of its clients are not there. They’re at home, enjoying familiar surroundings and the quality care that can come from hospice.

“I love the vision and mission of hospice,” said Dr. David West, vice president of medical affairs at Hospice and Palliative Care of Western Colorado. “You take the overall person.”

Indeed, hospice works to pay attention to patients’ mental and emotional health as well as their physical well-being.

West actively lobbied for changes in the national health care system and continues to follow the debate over whether to alter portions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act approved by Congress last year. He favors a change that would force insurance companies to offer coverage of treatment in hospice, just as they pay for hospital treatment.

“They won’t pay for making sure people take their pills at home, and yet they will pay for treatments for degenerative heart disease several times,” West said.

The current system pays well for people who are sick, but doesn’t provide enough incentives to stay well, West said.

Said Whitney: “It’s possible that by using hospice, people can use the hospital less and the emergency room less.”

The organization employs more than 250 people and serves about 1,500 patients each year.

About 1,500 volunteers pitch in to give the organization strength to serve clients from Grand Junction to Montrose. Centers also are located in Montrose, Delta and Collbran.

A teen grief program funded with private donations and grants enables counselors to work with teens facing the loss of a family member. There’s also a bereavement program for pre-school children.

The Grand Junction hospice campus includes the Cups Coffee House and Spoons Restaurant, which raise funds for the organization.

For more information, log on to www.hospicewco.com.