Five employers efforts to improve health care and lower insurance costs is shifting into high gear. The group, known as the Valley Health Alliance, has a new Director and was part of a forum yesterday. Details on what the Alliance may try in the next year were discussed-- and mental health will be at the top of the list.
It’s snowing steadily outside as people trickle in for the morning forum. The Alliance is hosting the event with Aspen Valley Hospital and the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. Although topics include healthcare and insurance costs for all residents in the area, most of the morning is dedicated to what’s happening now with the Alliance and plans for the coming months.
“One of the first things I did when I came to Aspen is we conducted an employee focus group, with representation from each of the five employers," says Kathleen Killion. She's a warm and energetic transplant from Saint Louis. Killion is leading the Alliance and it’s unusual collection of employers. That includes the hospital, the county, the City of Aspen, Aspen School District, and the Aspen Skiing Company. In a focus group with their workers, Killion heard right away about substance abuse... something health officials say is one of the biggest problems in the Valley.
“They were very candid and transparent, saying that they’re struggling and they see peers of their struggling,” she says, pointing out that although many have taken advantage of free counseling through their employers, it’s not enough.
“What we’re hearing from VHA employees, is they really don’t know how to access these providers, who to call, when to call, where to go, and they’re showing up at Aspen Valley Hospital in the Emergency Room, for mental health and behavioral health issues."
Plus, there’s the stigma about getting help for mood or mental health struggles. So, one of the goals for the Valley Health Alliance, with the five major employers as members, is to improve where they can go and get help. By doing this:
“...really consolidating the behavioral health resources within the community. So the VHA is hoping to service as a unifying agent in bringing the Hope Center, bringing Mind Springs, bringing Aspen Strong and other stakeholders to the table in a unified voice, to develop a comprehensive behavioral health and mental health program for the VHA members,” Killion continues, pointedly saying the idea is to also leave behind whatever local politics may have gotten in the way in recent years.
Improving access to mental health will be a priority along with helping employees visit primary care doctors. Having a provider regularly seeing a worker can help tackle health problems before they get worse-- and more expensive, or even deadly. The Alliance would make sure these visits would be covered or otherwise paid for by employers.
Paulina Vander Noordaa is in the audience, and asks why other employers haven’t been asked to join in the collaboration. “We’ve been asked that question a lot. For one, guys, we don’t have secret sauce we’re keeping from everyone right now," explains Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock. "We have some strategies that we’re starting to work on together, and we’re starting to try-- so we want to prove a concept before we invite folks.”
Especially small businesses who don’t have a lot of margin for error. Time will tell whether the efforts by the five participants will make a difference.