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Surging demand for low-income health services lengthens waiting list at Peak Vista

Polly Ulm remembers the suspenseful seconds early this past summer when she would hear her son stop breathing in his sleep.

She'd wait, and wait, before hearing him breathe again. Her heart would stop racing, but her mind would keep going: Would Sawyer, then 3, be cranky in the morning because of another poor night's sleep? More importantly, would his sleep apnea lead to heart problems or other health complications?

And if it did, how would the family pay for treatment?

Ulm and her husband Mike, professionals who'd been unemployed for long months, had stopped paying $600 a month for their high-deductible private health insurance in April.

"Something is wrong when we have to pay so much for insurance that we can't even afford to go to the doctor," Ulm says.

Then in July, the Ulms went to a health fair sponsored by Peak Vista Community Health Centers, and discovered that Peak Vista could treat Sawyer through the federal Medicaid program. And as uninsured adults, Polly and Mike learned they could get most of their own health needs met for the cost of a pro-rated co-pay, which for them works out to around $25.

Which all sounds great for people in their position, except for one problem: Peak Vista, a nonprofit, is also trying to serve thousands of other struggling families.

Over its 38-year history, Peak Vista often has had up to 400 people waiting to register for medical and dental care, according to BJ Scott, Peak Vista's president and CEO. But in May, Scott says, the waiting list shot up to about 2,000, where it's stayed — meaning it can take two or three months to see a doctor in Colorado Springs. (The Ulms waited for a shorter time because they went to the less-crowded Fountain clinic.)

Peak Vista's medical personnel are willing to accept more patients. After opening a new clinic in February 2008, Peak Vista treated 39,180 patients through September of that year. Through the first nine months of 2009, Peak Vista had seen about 7,400 more patients, up 19 percent.

Scott believes that with so many people losing jobs, failing to find new ones, and depleting their savings, her organization "could easily double in size and not be meeting all the demand."

Peak Vista has two full-service health clinics in Colorado Springs, one in Fountain and another in Divide, two senior health centers, a homeless medical clinic and an immediate-care center. About half of the patient visits are from children and pregnant women covered by Medicaid, which produces about one-third of the nonprofit's revenues. Many others are uninsured; Peak Vista provides more than $12 million in charitable care each year.

Locally, Medicaid applications are soaring: Arturo Serrano, economic assistance manager for the El Paso County Department of Human Services, says they approached 1,000 in August, up from about 600 in August 2008. But many doctors in private practice avoid Medicaid patients, due to the low reimbursable rates.

So far, Scott says, Peak Vista's private fundraising is holding up. But the organization has a lot riding on its annual "Breakfast of Champions" fundraiser, scheduled for Nov. 11 with Olympic swimming legend Mark Spitz. And to meet more of the need that's out there, keeping fundraising steady won't be enough.

"You can't see more patients unless you have more docs," and that takes more space," Scott says. "You don't want to get the cart before the horse."

lane@csindy.com

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