Axis Health System CEO Bern Heath will retire in January after leading the organization for almost 20 years and growing services to reach thousands of residents.
The Axis board selected Chief Operating Officer Shelly Burke to replace Heath because of her experience with the agency, said board President John Albright. Burke was Heath’s first hire about 19 years ago when she started as chief financial officer, he said.
Heath said he didn’t expect Burke to be “Bern version two,” but to bring her own vision to the organization.
“Shelly will lead an organization that will look different, I truly believe, better,” Heath said.
In her new role, Burke said she would like to use technology to expand health care access for residents. For example in the short term, Axis will pilot a teletherapy program to provide counseling via livestream.
Axis has had a history of innovation under Heath’s leadership, Albright said.
When Heath took the helm at Axis, it provided mental health care at one building in Bodo Industrial Park and was in dire need of new leadership, he said. Heath brought experience as a clinical psychologist and excellent financial management to the job, Albright said.
“Bern is a real visionary, no doubt,” he said.
The health system now provides integrated primary, behavioral and oral health care as well as crisis response across the region. It serves more than 12,000 patients.
Starting in 2006, Heath led the integration of physical, mental and substance abuse care at Axis. Traditionally, mental and physical health care are provided separately.
Offering integrated health care can help overcome the reluctance some patients feel about seeking out mental health care and leads to more successful treatment, Heath said.
At the time, integrated health care was considered cutting edge. It has since caught on nationally.
“It was a monumental task to transform the organization,” Albright said.
Under Heath’s leadership, Axis opened clinical facilities in Durango, Cortez and Pagosa Springs and an acute treatment unit in Durango, which provides short-term inpatient care. Next year, the health system expects to have an annual budget of $26 million, Heath said.
During his time at Axis, Heath also aimed to reform how health providers are paid in the state to improve patient care but was not successful.
The traditional reimbursement method is a fee-for-service model, which was designed to save money by limiting care. It also requires a significant amount of paper work to manage, he said.
Heath advocated for a model that provides health care providers with a set amount of money per month to care for patients. Managed care keeps patients healthier by engaging them in their own care and making it easier for physicians to identify problems early and provide more preventive care, he said. It’s a model that’s been discussed for decades, he said.
“I haven’t been able to get the state to understand,” he said.
However, he has seen encouraging changes, including better acceptance about mental health care and law enforcement reform.
Axis helped reform how law enforcement agencies work with residents in crisis by setting up the first rural crisis intervention team in the state, while Heath was CEO. The invention training helps law enforcement manage residents who are experiencing mental health crisis and prevents unnecessary hospitalizations and jail time, Heath said.
“It makes a world of difference,” he said.
Heath also has observed awareness about mental health care improve tremendously.
“We all go through periods of time when we are really off balance. ... When somebody is struggling with that, it does not make them lesser,” he said.