WELLINGTON, Colo. - There's only one medical clinic in this small town in northern Colorado, but residents fear its days are numbered if they can't find a new doctor.
Wellington Medical Center, owned by Cheyenne Regional Medical Center in Cheyenne, Wyo., will see its last patient Jan. 23. The town will lose its only doctor if a replacement isn't found.
"We are actively recruiting, and the plan is to have a physician up there by July," said Dr. John Bender of Miramont Family Medicine in Fort Collins, which is close to an agreement with CRMC to keep the clinic open.
Bender's plan includes changing services in a bid to keep it open, he told the Coloradoan newspaper.
The clinic's patient load now is too little to justify keeping it open, said Kathy Baker, public relations manager for CRMC. It sees 25 to 35 patients a day between its doctor and nurse practitioner, said Jessica Jacques, the patient account representative at the Wellington clinic. Fewer than 5,000 people live in Wellington.
Patients fear they'll have to drive 15 miles for medical care when the Wellington clinic closes.
"I just see this as a disaster," said Wellington resident Janalee McGee, a mother of three who said she relies on her local clinic for her family's checkups, sports physicals and asthma treatments.
The situation in Wellington is similar to clinics closing in rural towns nationwide. Insurance reimbursement rates are down, while the cost of practicing medicine has risen. Doctors saddled with high insurance premiums and hefty student loans are seeking higher-paying practices in cities.
Larimer County has seen two dozen primary care offices close between 2001 and 2008 because of unsustainable economics, said Bender, the former president of Larimer County Medical Society.
"It's difficult for rural areas to get the care they deserve," said Wellington's lone doctor, Dr. Andrew Hughes. Hughes is leaving to open another practice in Craig.
According to the Colorado Rural Health Center, there are no full-time doctors in six Colorado counties.
A doctor who once worked at the Wellington clinic, Dr. Janice Weixelman, now practices in another rural community, Red Feather Lakes. She told the Coloradoan that she thinks another doctor will be willing to work in Wellington and that there are rewards in rural practice that big-city doctors appreciate.
"This is an area where people say 'thank you' when you take care of them," she said.