Obama cites Colorado town as model for reform

Grand Junction, CO looks like many small American cities, right down to the chain stories and ranch homes. But in one respect, it's quite different: It's known as a land where people get high-quality healthcare at a small fraction of the regular cost, and preventive care is widely available. President Obama himself held a town hall meeting there this weekend to emphasize his hopes that more of the U.S. could function like Grand Junction does.

According to some stats, Grand Junction's cost of $5,873 per Medicare patient in 2006--the most recent data available--is about 30 percent below the national average. Compare that with the $10,810 cost-per-patient in Los Angeles and you begin to get a sense of what excites policymakers so much.

So, what makes Grand Junction so special? Aside from the fact that it's one of the cheapest communities in the U.S. generally, doctors found a way to get around community healthcare problems by charging a little less for privately insured patients, and a bit more for Medicare-insured patients; that way, doctors happily see everyone.

Another factor that seems to help is that people are mostly cared for by a local, doctor-owned nonprofit HMO--Rocky Mountain Health Plans. Doctors have the sense that the HMO, which has stayed nonprofit, makes decisions for the community, not just for shareholders thousands of miles away, doctors say.

And because the HMO covers a small area it can bore down and focus on local problems. For example, when it realized that many women weren't getting prenatal care, and that lots of newborns needed costly intensive care post-birth, it began giving away free prenatal services. Meanwhile, the HMO also sent therapists on home visits to make sure discharges took place successfully.

Ultimately, some of the town's secrets--such as its close culture and independent spirit--may not be duplicable elsewhere. But you can rest assured Obama administration officials are going to try.

To learn more about Grand Junction:
- read this feature from the Los Angeles Times