New Grantmaker on the Block: The Colorado Springs Health Foundation

When the new Colorado Springs Health Foundation invited us to speak with its board members about health care issues in its region, we were eager to pull together data and analysis.

But first, we wanted to learn more about the foundation. Its executive director, Cari Davis, spoke with us about this new addition to the Front Range philanthropic community.

The Colorado Springs Health Foundation was created in 2012 after citizens voted to lease city-owned Memorial Health System to the University of Colorado Health. After the resolution of some legal matters, the foundation is just now getting ready to make about $8 million in grants in El Paso and Teller counties over the next three years.

Meet Cari Davis:

Davis, who became the foundation’s first executive director last year, is no stranger to health. Her passion for improving access to health care and social justice has guided her career from the start.

She began her career as a management consultant to the hospital industry. She then returned to her home town of Colorado Springs and served as the executive director of TESSA, a nonprofit that helps victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. After that, she directed communications and marketing efforts at Memorial Health System.

Most recently, she spent two years as a faculty member with Yale University’s Global Health Leadership Institute, working in Rwanda and Ethiopia to build hospital leadership teams and train health care professionals in management practices.

Her return from East Africa coincided with the search for the Colorado Springs Health Foundation’s first executive director. She said it was just the new intellectual and professional challenge she was seeking.

The board of trustees had already been hard at work by the time Davis joined the foundation. The nine-member board, nominated by the mayor and approved by the city council, spent nearly two years conducting community focus groups to learn about the most pressing health needs in Teller and El Paso counties.

Many of the themes that emerged — difficulty accessing care, a shortage of psychiatric providers and a high prevalence of childhood obesity — echo the problems faced by communities across the state.

The focus groups reinforced the important lesson that even within a two-county region there are big differences in the problems faced by residents trying to access health care. On one end of the spectrum, you have the second largest metropolitan area in the state. On the other end are rural communities facing health care access challenges similar to those of remote mountain communities.

Insights from the focus groups eventually became the basis for the foundation’s funding strategy. The group recently decided on these four focus areas:

  1. Access to Care
  2. Primary Care and/or Psychiatric Provider Workforce Development
  3. Suicide Prevention
  4. School-based Healthy Eating and/or Active Living Initiatives

The process took about 2 ½ years. “I have a lot of respect for the fact that the board took a few years for this process,” Davis said. “They took it very seriously and they refer to the findings often. Just as health is local, philanthropy is local. We really have to understand the community we serve.”

CHI has gathered and analyzed local data for two of the funding focus areas: access to health care and workforce capacity.

Drawing from a variety of data sources — including regional data from the Colorado Health Access Survey and CHI’s County Data Workbooks — we have identified key takeaways, including:

  • When it comes to insurance coverage, place matters.

In the Colorado Springs Health Foundation’s two-county region, the likelihood that people living in a certain ZIP code are uninsured ranges from just over one percent in Palmer Lake to nearly 20 percent in neighboring ZIP codes. Poverty, language, employment, housing, median age and average household size are all predictors of a person’s insurance status.

  • Insurance hasn’t resulted in better access to care – yet.

Both El Paso and Teller counties saw their uninsured rates plummet between 2013 and 2015. But the data suggest that this increase in coverage hasn’t moved the needle on access to care – at least not yet. In El Paso County, nearly one of five residents aren’t getting doctor appointments when they need them. And for residents of the four-county region that includes Teller County, the cost of care as top of mind; 13 percent say they didn’t get needed specialist care due to cost.  

  • Primary care physicians are in high demand and low supply.

El Paso and Teller counties are in two of the highest-need regions when it comes to primary care providers. A CHI study in 2014 showed that El Paso County comes up short by 120 primary care physicians. The region that includes Teller County needs 13 more, nearly double the current number of primary care physicians in the sparsely populated region. Heightened use of mid-level providers – physician assistants and nurse practitioners – alleviates some of these primary care workforce needs.

I am teaming with CEO Michele Lueck to share these findings with Davis and her board this morning. The data will inform the foundation’s grant making in 2016.

Measuring success isn’t easy, but Davis has a clear vision for a foundation that is living its mission. It will look like this:

“Our funded partners demonstrate real and significant impact on targeted health issues; our foundation tracks real and significant improvement in the areas in which it invests; and our community’s health status is measurably improved.”

Learn more about the Colorado Springs Health Foundation by visiting its website. You can also contact the Colorado Health Institute to request a customized presentation to your board or organization. 

Natalie Triedman is a policy analyst at CHI.