In the long and often contentious debate leading up to the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the spotlight fell on Grand Junction, Colo.—a bustling town of 58,000 people nestled on the Centennial State’s Western Slope. While the city is a gateway to the Rockies and a hub of mountain living, it turns out that Grand Junction and Mesa County also feature one of the most affordable health care systems and some of the highest quality care in the United States.

Not surprisingly, politicians, politicos and media types descended on the Grand Junction area as the PPACA debate raged. President Barack Obama delivered a speech in Grand Junction in 2009, when trying to gain support for his not-so-popular health overhaul law. Shortly after, the city found its way into the pages of The Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker and the New England Journal of Medicine as well as the nightly news and PBS.

It’s easy to see why the system stands out. Doctors across the community work very closely with one another and the plan provider, Rocky Mountain Health Plans. The system has been very keen to adopt new methods of delivering care or improving the delivery of service. And administrators and medical professionals have been able to find ways to work through their disagreements and differences for more than 30 years.

Starting out

The system’s roots trace back to 1973, when President Richard Nixon signed into law the Health Maintenance Organization Act, which provided government support in the form of loans and grants to build or expand HMOs. A small group of Grand Junction physicians decided to start their own HMO and signed up John Harrison, who had recently obtained a master’s degree in health administration from the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, to be plan administrator. Harrison took care of the business side while the doctors set up the network. Harrison says it was possible because the doctors had existing relationships and a mentality typical for people in the West at that time.

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