What is OWhN?
The Oregon Washington Health Network was established in March of 2014. During that month, Yellowhawk Tribal Health Center (YTHC) of Pendleton, Oregon submitted a successful network planning grant to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) of the Department of Health and Human Services. The network was originally formed with six members. These were YTHC (a tribally managed health center operated by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) which serves as the lead agency), CHI St. Anthony Hospital of Pendleton, Blue Mountain Community College of Pendleton; Lifeways Inc. of Pendleton (a regional mental health provider), the Umatilla County Health Department of Pendleton, and Providence St. Mary Hospital of Walla Walla, Washington (the region’s tertiary care provider). During its first year of operation, three additional partners were added. These were the Morrow County Health Department of Heppner, Oregon; the Walla Walla County Health Department of Walla Walla, Washington; and Good Shepherd Hospital of Hermiston, Oregon.
Much of the impetus for establishing a regional health network related to the need to address access issues that had existed in Northeast Oregon for decades. The most challenging of these related to access to medical, dental, and behavioral health services and a lack of preventative services. For much of the past decade, Umatilla County Oregon ranked the lowest of all 34 Oregon Counties for health related behaviors including obesity, smoking and lack of physical activity. Prior to the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, one-fourth or more of the residents of Umatilla, Morrow, and Union Counties of Oregon had no health insurance. High death rates for heart disease, cancer, and stroke had also existed in NE Oregon for decades. A lack of behavioral health and substance abuse treatment services had led to high rates of suicide, increasing use of opioid and other addicting drugs, and increasing rates of domestic violence.
Despite these concerns, Northeast Oregon also had a number of significant advantages over other rural areas. First of all, Umatilla County of which Pendleton is the county seat, had two excellent hospitals (CHI St. Anthony and Good Shepherd) located 30 miles apart that provide good access to the eastern and western portions of the county. Secondly, the CTUIR had completed a number of studies that found that immediate action was required to effectively address substance abuse and teen suicide. Third, all of the member organizations of the network had well established working relationships and were very willing to collaborate to address regional needs. Fourth, many changes were occurring in the nation’s health care system at the same time, the new health network was being established. These changes in reimbursement, data collection, outcome measurement all provided additional impetus for the member organizations of the OWhN to begin to work together collaboratively.
The first meeting of the OWhN network was held in December of 2014. During this meeting the six original members of the network agreed to work collaboratively to implement the four goals of the Yellowhawk Rural Health Network Planning grant that had been awarded to YTHC in September of that year. The goals of this project were:
- To formally establish a rural health network to serve Umatilla, Union, and Morrow Counties of Oregon, and Walla Wallla County, Washington;
- To implement evidence based practices to improve the quality of health care services in region;
- To plan and develop new services for NE Oregon and SE Washington State that would address existing gaps in service delivery; and
- To complete a strategic plan to address service needs and provider training and develop an approach for long term sustainability of the network.
During the initial meeting of the network, a long range goal was established. Each of the members agreed to work collaboratively with the other members to address the myriad of health problems that existed in the region and to develop a regional system of care that would be a model for other rural areas to follow.
In the 2 years that the Oregon Washington Health Network has operated using HRSA grant funds (a three year outreach grant was awarded in May of 2015), many improvements have been made through the collaborative efforts of the health network. Among these are the following:
- A strategic planning initiative was completed that established 20 goals and objectives to be completed by the network within the next five years;
- The first major study of cancer deaths and incidence rates was completed with the support of the Knight Cancer Institute of Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) and the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board;
- Training was provided and made available to all network members in areas relating to cultural sensitivity, evidence based practices, telemedicine, and quality improvement;
- Funding was acquired to establish a regional telemedicine network to provide stroke, emergency, and specialty care services; and
- Collaborations have been started with Oregon Health and Science University, and other local universities with health programs to place residents and students in the member organizations of the network.
The mission and vision statements of the OWhN established in its strategic plan are described below:
Integrating physical, mental, behavioral, and public health services to improve health outcomes and health equity focusing on access, quality, and cost effectiveness
Citizens in Umatilla, Union, Morrow, and Walla Walla Counties are the healthiest in the two state region.
YTHC and members of OWhN are committed to working collaboratively on a long term basis to improve the health of all residents including members of the CTUIR. Considering the current health status of the population served, these activities will be take time, and very likely a rethinking of how to more effectively provide services during times of diminishing revenues. The member organizations remain committed to addressing the needs of their service population by working collaboratively to develop new services and assuring the high quality patient care.