Creating greater health support for Native nations with Rocky Mountain Health Plans

Health equity for Native Americans

Monique Sturgeon has always been attuned to the needs of her community — and unfortunately, to the barriers and challenges that may exist. A member of the Weeminuche Band of the Ute Mountain Tribe, Monique sees the stark gaps in care first-hand and is acutely aware of the lack of culturally sensitive resources that tribal members need.

As a whole, Native Americans face disparities in terms of access to care, chronic disease and other health metrics. Native Americans have a life expectancy that is more than five years shorter than the national average.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Monique began working for Rocky Mountain Health Plans, a UnitedHealthcare company. She was managing post-emergency room calls for people on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation, and on her own time, began working to help provide the resources needed to support the underserved community she served.

Eventually, she realized it was more than one person could handle.

With a $200,000 investment from Rocky Mountain Health Plans and support by the Colorado Health Foundation, the Western Slope Native American Resource Center (WSNARC) was born. WSNARC helps local American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) families get access to the resources they deserve. Monique began with a grassroots, boots-on-the-ground approach, going house to house on the reservation, in order to find who needed help.

“I think more people are starting to trust us,” Monique said. “More people are starting to see what we can do.”

The center provides services and community programs to families on the Western Slope and serves as a single point of entry for comprehensive and collaborative community-based services for families that might have otherwise found them difficult to access. All of this is done with understanding the tribal system of the elders, knowing the beliefs that dictate living arrangements and empathizing with the generational trauma of living on a reservation, all to build a trusting relationship between native nations and healthcare systems available to serve them.

WSNARC programs include:

  • Helping Native Americans find resources for social drivers of health, such as food, education, housing, behavioral health and substance use care, and employment
  • Disability advocates and peer navigators helping Native Americans with disabilities understand what resources are available and walking them through each step
  • Providing transportation to medical appointments all over Colorado and even in neighboring states Utah and New Mexico
  • Offering a program for children that focuses on getting kids outdoors
  • Providing Native American cultural presentations for schools and businesses to educate people about who Native Americans were and who they are today

Rocky Mountain Health Plans is a key supporter of this work, allowing the organization to expand capacity in care coordination and outreach.

“Trust is really essential. And that means that instead of expecting people to find our services and advocate for themselves, expecting them to simply trust that we can deliver, we need to bring those services to them. And that’s what the West Slope Native American resource center is about,” Patrick Gordon, CEO, Rocky Mountain Health Plans stated.

“We want to help people,” Monique said. “That’s what drives us.”

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