Rimrock Health Alliance board members have not yet chosen a replacement for retired director Sharon Vail

by: BILL MINTIENS - Christa Papke continues to maintain day-to-day operations and existing programs and serves as the finance administrator for Rimrock Health Alliance.

When Sharon Vail retired as executive director of Rimrock Health Alliance (RHA) and outreach coordinator for the Community Health Improvement Program (CHIP), her position with the RHA was not immediately filled.

Although Christa Papke, who has served RHA for about three years as Vail’s administrative assistant and finance administrator, succeeded her CHIP position, RHA was left without an official leader and faces questions about the future of the organization.

“RHA-wise, I’m still the finance administrator and I’m also maintaining the day-to-day operations and existing programs that we have in place while the board of directors decides future direction,” said Papke.

RHA has been operating for about three years. Its motto is “Healthy Community – Healthy Economy” and, since day one, its mission has been to increase access to and strengthen health resources in Crook County.

CHIP, housed at the same location as RHA, is a volunteer organization supported and sponsored by the St. Charles Health System’s Pioneer Memorial Hospital, the Oregon Community Foundation, Juan Young Trust, Perrin Foundation and the General Mills Foundation.

Operating since 2007, Crook County’s CHIP is one of 11 CHIP sites around rural Oregon with the mission of helping critical access hospitals like Pioneer Memorial understand and work better with rural communities to help identify health issues and implement solutions important to them.

While it’s unknown what that future direction might be but, given recent belt-tightening comments by the new St. Charles Prineville CEO, Jeanie Gentry, the future for the RHA is left in doubt.

“We have got to lower our expenses like we never have before, and there is an opportunity to share resources,” said Gentry in a recent interview with the Central Oregonian.

Member-supported, RHA Cornerstone Members contribute $10,000 or more annually (St. Charles Health System/Pioneer Memorial Hospital), Keystone Members contribute $5,000 to $9,000 annually (City of Prineville, Mosaic Medical), and Pillar Members $1,000 to $4,000 annually.

Christa Papke is optimistic that member support and funding will continue.

“Our 2013 membership is better than it’s ever been. Our partners have been very committed to Rimrock’s mission and projects.”

Prineville City Councilor Dean Noyes is also optimistic, but pragmatic about RHA’s future.

“Speaking as a sole member of Council, I look to donation requests pragmatically. It's made sense to support their nonprofit efforts and their work has been consistent with our overall economic development strategies. My hope would be that the healthcare community in Crook County continues to remain vibrant and work towards common goals with pioneering efforts, like those Sharon instituted, continuing on into our future.”

RHA has accomplished a lot in the last three years. Collaboration among the many health-related organizations in Crook County has resulted in Ladies Night Out, an annual women’s health fair featuring guest speakers and more than 25 health and wellness exhibitors. With the help of CHIP and the Prineville-Crook County Chamber of Commerce, walking maps of the city have been created to promote physical fitness.

And with a new hospital in the works, RHA’s work on physician recruitment and retention has proved invaluable.

“This past summer alone we hosted seven site visits for prospective primary care physicians. We’re building a fantastic physician base in this community. The clinics in our area have really been focusing on the very best healthcare and bringing in the right people to provide it,” said Papke.

Finding the right fit between a physician and the community has been the primary goal.

“When we recruit physicians we recruit for our community. Who’s the right fit? We want them to come and we want them to stay. In the last three years we’ve brought in 14 physicians and only one has not stayed,” added Papke.

CHIP has also accomplished a great deal since its inception in Crook County.

Dental education, resources, and preventative care for children through high school age have dramatically reduced the use of the hospital’s emergency room for dental emergencies. Healthy food and snack programs in the schools are combating childhood obesity. And adult healthy lifestyles programs and education are designed to reduce adult health issues by promoting physical activity and nutrition awareness.

Projects and programs between CHIP and the RHA frequently overlap.

“As a community organization, CHIP brings people together from organizations who are not always in the same room to work together to accomplish something that wouldn’t otherwise be possible,” said Papke.

Papke is unaware what the RHA Board may choose to do in the future, or what her eventual role may be, but is very clear about what CHIP has accomplished and wants to do in the future.

“CHIP has been very successful over the last seven years. We just had an advisory committee meeting to evaluate where we are. We’ve done some really neat things and now we’re looking at other opportunities, primarily with other community organizations that may want to partner with us.”

Papke went on to say that her personal word going forward is deliberate.

“Everybody’s limited in resources — whether it’s money, people, or time. So how do we bring all of these folks together for the best use of resources? Being deliberate for us means choosing the things that we can do, things that aren’t being done by anyone else.”

Dean Noyes, a longtime CHIP volunteer, is also the Chair of both the Dental and Advisory Committees. He feels strongly that CHIP’s mission should continue into the future.

“Sharon left some big shoes to fill in terms of coordination. The concepts and programs that we've initiated are the result of a group effort and we're always adjusting our course in accordance with the ever changing needs of the community. We will continue to adapt and work with our community to provide the resources and education that have been at the heart of our success.”

Papke agrees with Noyes. “We’re been here seven years. Our sustainability is a real testament to our leadership, committees, and volunteers. We plan to be around a long time into the future.”

Regardless of future decision making within both organizations, one thing is certain. The efforts of both organizations have resulted in positive health changes in Crook County.

The Crook County Health Department reported that back in March of this year, Crook County improved to eighth from 12th (in 2012) in the overall health outcomes ranking in the State of Oregon.

Crook County has seen improvement in individual’s rating of their health, excessive drinking percentages, violent crime rates, and their physical environment including access to healthy foods.

Nevertheless, there is still room to improve. Adult smoking rates are 22 percent compared to 17 percent for Oregon. In addition, community partners are working very hard to bring in new providers to improve access to care including mammogram screening.

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