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Six Kansas counties to participate in initiative aimed at bettering rural healthcare systems

$1.5 million earmarked for three-year pilot project

By | October 17, 2013

Six western Kansas counties will be part of a $1.5 million initiative aimed at improving their healthcare systems in ways that can be duplicated by medical providers in other rural areas that are challenged by shrinking populations, recruiting difficulties and mounting financial pressures.

Health Futures Taskforces in each of the communities will receive $40,000 to hire local coordinators and work with a national consultant to develop improvement plans. There will be a second round of funding to implement the plans.

The counties that will be involved in the three-year pilot project are:

  • Cheyenne, where the local coordinator will be Carol Sloper;
  • A collaboration of Osborne, Phillips and Smith counties with local coordinator Christiane “Criquet’ Cole;
  • Clark County, including the Minneola and Ashland hospital districts, with coordinator Dr. Dan Shuman;
  • and Kearney County, where the coordinator will be Heather Combs Platter.

The grants require that the improvement plans be based on data from community health assessments and performance evaluations of their healthcare systems.

“This is really an opportunity to have a very data-driven approach to looking at the long-term issues facing these health systems and to developing ideas for how to address them,” said Kim Moore, president of the United Methodist Health Ministry Fund, the Hutchinson-based foundation that is spearheading the initiative.

The Kansas Health Foundation, the Sunflower Foundation, the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas Foundation, and the research arm of the Kansas Hospital Association also are providing funding.

The funders invited grant applications from “frontier” areas of the state – places where there are fewer than 10 people per square mile. Applicants could be cities, counties or hospital districts.

“Our goal was to find four energetic, forward-thinking rural communities,” Moore said. “We are very pleased with the results of our painstaking selection process.”

There is no guarantee the groups selected for planning grants will get a second round of funding, officials said.

Implementation grants of at least $440,000 will only be awarded to groups that submit plans that have potential to take their health care systems to higher performance levels.

“We’re not limiting communities except to say that hiring one new health professional would not be a transitional or transformational change. We want something that really deals with the ongoing structure, the ongoing working environment and the culture of that health system,” Moore said.

Cole, the coordinator for the group hoping to improve the health care delivery system in the three northwest Kansas counties, said the two-phased approach gives the project the best chance for success.

“The first objective is to really do an in-depth analysis,” Cole said. “You can’t make decisions about how you want to provide future services until you have a pretty good picture of what’s going on today.”

Cole said the providers participating in the pilot project – which include hospitals in Osborne, Smith Center and Phillipsburg – were excited about the possibility of developing an approach that could be helpful in the future to other rural communities in Kansas and beyond the state’s borders.

“If we implement new ideas and new approaches that work, we would be creating a template that could be duplicated in rural areas facing similar issues,” she said.

The funders are hoping that the grants will produce bold thinking about how to better integrate patient care in rural health systems, said Melissa Hungerford, vice-president of the Kansas Hospital Association. Today, she said, patients get lost even in small health care systems. Providers don’t communicate to ensure the right kind of care is given at the right time in the right setting.

“This project will give communities the opportunity to figure out how to do that for their residents,” she said.

Greg Bonk, a health care consultant with HMS Associates in Getzville, New York, will spend time in Kansas over the next year working with the four planning groups to analyze data and help craft improvement plans that change the health care landscapes in the respective communities.

“They must be well informed about the need for change and about the design possibilities for new organizational and service relationships,” Bank said.

Moore said progress reports would be issued by the funders for each of the anticipated three years of the project.

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