Western Healthcare Alliance Bolsters Hospitals in Small Communities
“Our rural hospitals are the lifeblood of their communities,” Cara Welch, senior director of communications for the Colorado Hospital Association says.
Rural communities can thrive or falter by their jobs, schools and key services such as community hospitals. So, many rural Colorado hospitals are working together to find support and strength in each other while still maintaining their community roots. Nonprofit Western Healthcare Alliance (WHA), based in Grand Junction, provides an avenue for small-town hospitals to work together to deal with challenging issues ranging from billing and collections, to cyber-attack protection, to Medicare and Medicaid compliance and reimbursements.
The Western Healthcare Alliance was formed in 1989 by 13 rural hospitals and has grown to 31 members located mostly across smaller towns throughout central and western Colorado. The goal is for hospitals to collaborate to lower the cost of care and at the same time improve the quality of care.
“WHA is a rural health care solution. And it’s not easy because the bane of our existence is small populations, and health care reimbursement is based on large volume,” said Garfield County resident Chris McDowell, executive director at Valley Health Alliance. “It provides a forum for hospitals to compare best practices within hospital organizations and come up with solutions and ideas that are applicable here on the Western Slope.”
Angelina Salazar, CEO at Western Healthcare Alliance, emphasizes big-picture goals and forthcoming initiatives to promote economic sustainability of rural hospitals, but the smaller, daily issues matter, too, for staff at small hospitals.
John Hart, CEO of the 15-bed critical access Wray Community District Hospital in Yuma County, said Western Healthcare Alliance helps with credentialing of new physicians and signing those doctors up with medical insurance companies.
“It’s not huge, but it’s huge for us,” Hart said. “It’s easier than having our own staff do it because it’s more efficient and more quickly resolved.”
Hart said he appreciates the variety of services that Western Healthcare Alliance provides ranging from virtual leadership training to bad debt collections. He also values the communication with fellow CEOs during peer networking events because leaders of comparable, rural hospitals “can help me because they’re more my size.”
Western Healthcare Alliance organizes 16 peer networking groups ranging from chief nursing officers to materials management to rehabilitation. A chief medical officers peer group will start in January 2023, followed by a peer group for board of directors in 2024.
Jim Coombs, CEO at Grand River Health in Rifle, said he values the cooperative relationships that Western Healthcare Alliance helps to foster because less duplicated and competitive services help to lower overall health-care costs.
Bobbie Orchard, WHA marketing and program development director, reported that alliance members saved more than $7 million in 2021 through WHA programs and services for staffing pools, lab testing, employee benefits, cyber security and event management, and a leadership academy.
Coombs said another valuable collaboration is the sharing between regional hospitals of surgeons in specialty areas such as urology. That critical human resource is also an expensive asset, he said.
“WHA has just opened the door to a forum where you get to know other people and hospitals so you feel a lot more comfortable to call to ask questions and collaborate,” Coombs said. “They certainly facilitated making more of those relationships than we would have on our own.”
The success of the nonprofit alliance led to the creation of two separate for-profit entities. Healthcare Management, formed in 1992, is owned by 20 WHA members to provide collections and billing services. Community Care Alliance formed, in 2015, provides training, resources, materials and education.
The collaborative spirit of the 33-year-old alliance trickled down to the formation of smaller, regional partnerships such as the nonprofit Valley Health Alliance serving Aspen to Parachute that helps patients “get the right care at the right time at the right place at the right price.” That process is ripe for replication for regions such as Pagosa Springs, Durango and Cortez, or Craig, Rangely and Meeker, or Gunnison, Montrose and Delta, Salazar said.
Cara Welch, senior director of communications for the Colorado Hospital Association, said the partnership among the association, its 100-plus member hospitals and health systems, and alliances such as the WHA and the smaller Eastern Plains Healthcare Consortium is crucial to support the delivery of health care in rural Colorado.
“Our rural hospitals are the lifeblood of their communities,” Welch said. “At a time when numerous challenges face rural health-care providers, including hospitals, we must work together to find innovative and sustainable solutions.”
Suzie C. Romig is a freelance journalist who has lived in Colorado since 1991. Her byline has appeared in newspapers and magazines across the state on topics ranging from small businesses to raising children to energy efficiency. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org