Local health coalition starts pilot wellness program

Looking to enroll 150 community members from construction, service and nonprofit industries

By Katherine Nettles

The Gunnison County Community Health Coalition is gearing up to start a pilot community-owned wellness program similar to a traditional employee assistance program (EAP) this spring, and the hope is to bring counseling services of all kinds to those who work in high-risk industries within the valley such as those working in construction, service and nonprofit sectors. Other parallel efforts to improve access to health services and to foster a sense of belonging among community members in the valley’s rural setting are being handled in subgroups among the coalition.

The Health Coalition is comprised of a group of health and human services professionals across the county, and its stated mission is improving social, physical, mental and spiritual health for all community members. The coalition has identified responsibilities such as providing an inclusive forum for networking, identifying gaps and inequities in services and leveraging resources to address them. 

Gunnison County director of health, human and safety Joni Reynolds, health coalition coordinator Reiley Jones and community health manager Margaret Wacker presented the EAP concept and other updates about the health coalition’s current work during the commissioners meeting on March 15.  

The coalition is working on three main priorities: supporting the community workforce, improving access to services and building a sense of belonging. The coalition’s first goal of providing workforce support has led the group to form the pilot EAP.

Wacker said the EAP is similar to a standard model of such a program, except that employers can opt in for their employees on a larger community-wide scale as opposed to just one employer providing the program. The program will offer counseling services of many kinds, including legal/financial, mental health, wellness coaching, parental coaching and more. The program will initially prioritize at risk populations, which it has identified as those in the construction industry, service industry and non-profit industry, and enrolling 150 community members.  

Wacker said the employer pays for it and it becomes an employee benefit, at a cost of $34 per employee per year.

“We are partnering with MINES and Associates [an international business psychology firm] to offer a mix of in-person and telehealth services (primarily telehealth),” says Jodi Payne of the Gunnison Country Food Pantry, who has been involved with getting the pilot program started. “It operates similarly to other insurance plans, so the in-person options will depend on which providers contract with MINES. The plan will allow for one to five counseling sessions per life event.” 

Payne said the coalition has identified the service and construction industries for the pilot program’s limited capacity based on data showing higher rates of death by suicide among men in the service and construction industries. “We know historically that it is service and construction employees experiencing a disproportionate amount of substance use and mental health issues, while at the same time having the least number of resources to address these issues,” she says. 

The hope is to have businesses confirmed by May and to begin launching the EAP in June.

Next, the coalition is trying to improve community access to services, including mental health providers. Wacker said many providers can get booked up far in advance or may not be accepting new clients which makes patient access difficult. This effort to improve access started with conducting service provider surveys to collect data on the current processes for patient referrals. The coalition conducted informant interviews and is now discussing options for improving referral follow-ups. 

Last, the coalition is working to foster a sense of belonging among community members through two projects: a Community Champions campaign and a welcoming tip guide. 

“The sense of belonging subgroup is working to find ways to help community members realize they are valuable members of the community,” said Wacker. “We are doing this through recognizing ‘Community Champions’ where someone is nominated and highlighted each month.” These champions will be published in the local newspapers. 

Wacker said there will be a pamphlet circulated to businesses in town with tips on how to be welcoming toward community members as well. More information can be found at www.gcchealthcoalition.org.

Organizations currently participating in the Health Coalition Leadership include Axis, CB State of Mind (CBSOM), Gunnison Valley Family Physicians, Gunnison Country Food Pantry, Gunnison County, Western Colorado University, Gunnison Valley Health, Gunnison Valley Mentors, the Community Foundation of the Gunnison Valley and the city of Gunnison. Numerous other community organizations participate in the Health Coalition as well. 

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