Officials say for years, Grand Valley residents have had to deal with a shortage of primary care doctors in the area -- in some cases delaying care while their names are on wait lists, or packing hospital emergency rooms. But thanks to a new federal designation, they say help may be on the way.
Betty Heath says as she and her husband get older, it's important for them to have a doctor they can go to -- but after spending more than a month searching for one, she found that was easier said than done.
"I would call numbers and nobody was taking new patients," said Heath. "Finally my husband ended up in the hospital through the emergency room and we finally got a health care provider that way."
And she's not alone.
"The bottom line is we've been feeling the shortage for at least a good two to three years," said Greg Rajnowski, a planner for the Mesa County Department of Health.
He says over the past few years, the number of people in the Valley has blown up, but the number of primary care doctors has not. For the past year and half, he says the Health Department has been teaming up with area practices and hospitals to see what the need was and how they could get help.
"Imagine a doctor doing nothing but seeing patients forty hours a week, every week," said Rajnowski. "We're short about six or seven of those."
The team applied for and recently received an Health Professional Shortage Area, or HPSA, designation, meaning the federal government will help the county bring new doctors in by offering them incentives to practice here.
"Most of those are financial," said Rajnowski. "Some take the form of loan reimbursement."
Officials are hopeful the plan will work, but say residents shouldn't expect to see dozens of new offices popping up all over the place.
"Much like the current economic climate, the fix will be gradual as well," said Rajnowski.
But for people like Heath, even a handful of new doctors is a welcomed sigh of relief.
"If people have their own doctor, they're less apt to go to the emergency room," said Heath.
County officials estimate the HPSA designation could add an additional doctor or two to several of the existing offices in town, or could even create a handful of new offices.