Southeast Springs sees progress in other areas but is still a “health care desert”

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UCHealth’s urgent care center in the Southeast. (Courtesy UC Health)

by Amanda Hancock

Southeast Colorado Springs is known for many things — its cultural diversity, its tight-knit communities, its rapid expansion. But it’s also long been known for something else: its lack of health care resources.

While development of new health care facilities continues to expand access to services across the north, there isn’t a hospital on the southeast side of town, which is defined as the 80910 and 80916 ZIP codes and is made up of more than 70,000 people. Though there are few primary care medical providers nearby.

City Councilor Yolanda Avila, who has represented the Southeast since 2017, has heard this “health care desert” description of her neighborhood for so long that it feels like “forever,” she says. “I’ve been having the same conversation since before I was elected.”

It’s been on Cory Arcarese’s mind since as early as 2014, when she opened the Southeast’s first-ever primary care clinic, in response to the area’s lack of medical facilities. Three years after selling the clinic to Matthews-Vu, Arcarese hasn’t tired of the health care desert issue — those three words still get her “fired up.”

“It’s less of a desert than it was in 2014, so progress has been made,” says Arcarese, now the CEO of Nursing and Therapy Services of Colorado. “But we’re not where we need to be. And there’s going to be a point where it can’t be ignored.”

As a business consultant in the early 2000s, Arcarese found a niche working with Southeast residents. She heard how they had nowhere close to go for basic medical care or for emergencies. She heard about their trips to hospitals several miles away.

Then, in 2012, her 55-year-old brother died unexpectedly. He’d been diagnosed with diabetes and, because of his schedule as a truck driver, had trouble making it to medical appointments. He didn’t have a primary care doctor and relied on visits to urgent care.

“When he passed away, I had a lot of anger and grief and nowhere to put it,” says Arcarese.

She channeled it into opening Value Care Health Clinic, with one nurse practitioner and two exam rooms. That clinic grew to employ five providers and serve 5,000 patients by the time Arcarese sold it.

“It quickly became apparent that this was a need,” she says. “You know, there’s a business consultant opening a clinic and it’s working.”

More progress followed.

Matthews-Vu expanded at that location, and Peak Vista Community Health Centers, the Pikes Peak region’s largest Medicaid provider, has added a Southeast facility. A Women, Infants & Children office has also since opened on East Fountain Boulevard.

“Nobody wants to say that out loud. Nobody wants to be the one that says, ‘We don’t want a hospital for poor people.’” — Cory Arcarese

Something is still missing, though.

“Southeast being a desert, to me, it means no hospital,” says Arcarese.

It’s a concern she has brought up many times over the years. She says it would take a “concerted effort” to get the job done.

“I don’t see that happening in the foreseeable future,” Arcarese says.

Avila, who has advocated for a hospital in the Southeast, agrees.

“I’ve continued to bring it up,” she says. “It has fallen on deaf ears.”

As these conversations cycle, plans were announced last year for a new Centura Health hospital near 1-25 and Interquest. The north part of town will soon have four hospitals.

“It just sticks out like a sore thumb,” Arcarese says. “The folks living in lower socioeconomic conditions are the ones that don’t have one.”

“Nobody wants to say that out loud,” she says. “Nobody wants to be the one that says, ‘We don’t want a hospital for poor people.’”

According to Avila, there is a familiar refrain for Southeast residents: “We all go to Memorial.”

For those living in the 80910 and 89016 ZIP codes, that hospital is at least 5 miles away — about a 15-minute drive. For some residents traveling by bus, the trip would take more than an hour.

“I think 2 minutes can make a difference in someone’s life,” Avila says. “In an emergency situation, it makes a difference.”

A hospital is just one part of the puzzle, though. “We need good roads, transit, good food, places to go walk and exercise. We need recreation, we need employment, we need good jobs,” says Avila. “It’s everything.”

Another need is awareness, which was one goal of a recent storytelling project by Colorado Equity Compass.

“Throughout the city, a negative perception of the Southeast has been developed and the community is working to change this narrative,” the project states. “After years of disinvestment and under-representation, the community is advocating for the resources to transform into a thriving, healthy, and safe place to live.”

The project outlined these points about the Southeast:

• 15.2 percent of residents age 25-plus do not have a high school diploma.

• 84 percent of residents have low access to fresh food.

• 15.7 percent of adults report having fair or poor health.

• 50 percent of residents’ income is spent on housing.

• Residents have life expectancies 16 years shorter than the state average.

“It’s frustrating because the lack of equity is everywhere,” says Avila. “But you can’t get stuck with frustration.” And she says the Southeast has found ways to move forward.

A coalition of nonprofits and agencies called RISE, founded in 2016, continues its mission to “enhance the southeast from within through resident-led change.”

And residents are chiming in. Out of the Colorado Equity Compass project, Daily Dose 719 released six video episodes hoping to “change the narrative of the misunderstood Southeast community.”

The community saw a big win in 2022 with the $8.5 million renovation of Panorama Park.

“It all goes hand-in-hand,” says Avila. “There’s still a lot to do, but we’ve made strides. Some people have started to look at Southeast a lot differently.”

That includes those who call Southeast by another name: Home.

“We’ve been here a long time,” Avila says of her family and neighbors who have lived in the area for generations. “We’re not going anywhere.”

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