Before Ashley Hill moved to 80 acres of undeveloped land in Hartsel, she had practiced law in Golden. But a shared dream of a simpler life brought her and her partner to the mountains in 2016.
They found a simpler life, but with an asterisk: Park County, her new home, had no permanent health clinics. That means residents must drive long distances, often over mountain passes, for health care.
“I never thought that two hours from Denver, you’d have zero access to care,” she said. “I think it’s crazy we don’t have a clinic in every county in Colorado.”
Ashley is working for the Central Colorado Area Health Education Center as a Regional Health Connector (RHC) for Clear Creek, Gilpin, and Park counties. That’s also known as Health Statistics Region 17.
Each RHC is developing projects addressing behavioral health and cardiovascular health issues in their community. Ashley’s first project is to improve cardiovascular health by helping to bring clinics and medical professionals to her region.
Like Park County, Clear Creek and Gilpin counties lacked permanent health clinics when Ashley began her work as an RHC. Ashley sees improving access to care as a critical first step for improving the well-being of people in her region: Having a nearby clinic could make it easier for residents to access preventive care, for instance, which could make it easier to identify cardiovascular and other health challenges in early stages.
Ashley is taking different steps in each in each county. In Park County, there is an empty clinic building in Fairplay. It has medical supplies and even an X-ray machine. But the town has not had enough money to pay a staff.
“We have the space, we have everything we need, but we can’t pay people what they need to run it and stay out here,” Ashley said.
With Ashley’s help, that may be starting to change: In November, the county voted to create a health services district, funded by a one percent sales tax increase on non-food items, that could fund staff for the clinic. Ashley helped lobby for the tax increase, and she is a member of the district’s board.
In Clear Creek County, a temporary clinic opened in Idaho Springs in July 2017 and was soon seeing 22 patients a day. Ashley is working to find funds and other support to help build a permanent clinic. A little less than a third of its patients come from nearby Gilpin County, which does not have its own full-time clinic. Ashley plans to find funds to help provide transportation to those residents.
Ashley’s other projects focus on anxiety and depression and the opioid epidemic in rural Colorado
Region 17 has one of the state’s highest suicide rates. But there is a strong stigma and a lack of resources to address mental health, Ashley said. While there are three behavioral health clinics in the region, many community members don’t have much trust in the current system, in part because previous clinics have a negative track record and in part because the centers are run from other, more urban counties and aren’t in touch with rural issues. Ashley helped facilitate a Mental Health First Aid Training event in Georgetown where 20 residents learned about mental health services in the region and discussed challenges. She plans to host more similar events in other parts of the county and to advocate for including resources about mental health in local schools and businesses.
Opioid abuse is a also serious health hazard in Region 17. The county has among the highest rates of opioid use in the state. Ashley helped get a drop box for unused prescription pills installed at a law enforcement building in Black Hawk in Gilpin County and intends to set up another in Park County. “If grandma isn’t carrying two years of expired opioids, then grandson can’t access them,” she said.
RHCs live in the region they serve, so Ashley can spot needs and problems that aren’t necessarily revealed by data. She can help spread the word about the prescription drop box or mental health services. And she can help bring community insight into health issues that isn’t always identified by statewide data. In her region, for instance, data may be skewed by expensive ranches, second homeowners, and the region’s off-grid population.
Ashley wants to make sure the community’s real needs are a factor in determining what the community’s health priorities will be.
“A lot of people are trying to advocate for rural communities, expand access and organize on top of their jobs, and it just doesn’t get done,” she said. “And quite frankly, for a lot of rural Colorado, you need someone local making these connections.”
Regional Health Connector: Ashley Hill
Region 17: Clear Creek, Gilpin, & Park Counties
Host: Central Colorado Area Health Education Center
Photo: This medical clinic in Fairplay Colorado is full of equipment, but the town has not had funds to staff it. RHC Ashley Hill is planning to get the clinic up and running again.