The Valley Health Alliance has hired Grand Junction resident Martie Wisdom-Edwards to serve as the nonprofit’s first interim director.
The alliance, which recently dropped “Aspen” from its title, formed about a year ago in an effort to manage the rising costs of health insurance. It is made up of five local organizations, including Pitkin County, the city of Aspen, Aspen Valley Hospital (AVH), Aspen Skiing Co. and the Aspen School District, which combined, insure thousands of people in the valley.
As interim director, Wisdom-Edwards will help appoint the seven-member board of the new nonprofit and she is currently refining the organization’s bylaws. She also will help guide the program and identify potential candidates who live in Pitkin County to replace her in the long term. Wisdom-Edwards said she expects the process to take about three to six months, she said.
The director’s position is currently being funded by AVH, but as the program matures other members of the alliance will help pay for the director position, she said.
Wisdom-Edwards was originally recruited to assist the alliance by Aspen hospital CEO David Ressler about a year ago. The two met while serving on the board of the Western Healthcare Alliance, which represents 23 hospitals on the Western Slope.
During her 20-year career in health care administration, Wisdom-Edwards has served as the CEO of the Grand River Health Hospital and Medical Center in Rifle, and director of cardiovascular services at the Presbyterian Healthcare Services in Albuquerque, N.M., which includes seven hospitals and over 400 physicians.
In Albuquerque, Wisdom-Edwards was a part of an initiative to lower hospital costs by encouraging healthy behaviors through wellness programs. The lessons she learned there directly translate to what the Aspen alliance is attempting to do, she said.
Over the next 10 to 15 years, Valley Health Alliance officials hope to adopt similar wellness programs in order to encourage healthy behaviors with the help of a committee made up of local medical professionals to identify best practices, she said.
Aside from catastrophic health issues, like being diagnosed with cancer or premature births, the most costly insurance claims in the valley are neck and back pain, followed by other orthopedic injuries, Wisdom-Edwards said.
The other issue that has driven insurance costs to go up is that a large portion of the local population are becoming senior citizens.
“A lot of the employees that moved to Aspen 30 years ago for the beautiful environment and outdoor activities are still in the valley and still physically active,” Wisdom-Edwards said. “But they have aging bodies.”
The Valley Health Alliance aims to combat those costs by ensuring that best practices are used when treating patients so care is cost effective, she said.
“I predict — given my experience in New Mexico — that we’ll save tons,” she said.
Wisdom-Edwards anticipates that one of the biggest challenges the alliance will face is how to get people to understand the importance of their own behavior in improving their health.
About 40 percent of wellness initiatives is driven by individual behavior and choices people make on a daily basis, she said.
That can be encouraging because that means people have the power to change their own lives. Still, some have difficulty changing their habits because it can be difficult, Wisdom-Edwards said.
One way the alliance can help ensure people make healthy lifestyle choices is by having mental health services available. For example, the Ground River Health Hospital has added a full-time social worker to its staff. Since, the hospital has observed that patients have become more responsible in taking care of themselves.
The alliance already has been in discussions with Sharon Raggio, CEO of Colorado West Regional Mental Health, and plans to integrate mental health services into the program, she said.
“The whole goal is to include as many practitioners as possible in the health plan,” Wisdom-Edwards said. “Not just pay [for a single service] but to integrate them together. We want to maximize the use of existing resources, not reinvent the wheel.”
When the alliance was conceived about a year ago, it was out of a desire to address the problem of rising health care costs as soon as possible and not wait for the federal government to solve the problem, she said. Now that President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act has brought national attention to the issue, the timing of the alliance’s establishment is perfect, she said.
“I’m so excited about [the alliance],” Wisdom-Edwards said. “... It’s happening at a perfect tipping point, not just in the practice of medicine but in how society sees wellness.”