Health care leader receives accolade

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Martha Barton wore her heart on her sleeve when she accepted the “Business Leader of the Year” award at the Aug. 26 Accolades luncheon, sponsored by the Southern Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce.

Expressing shock and impassioned emotions, Barton acknowledged the other nominees and thanked all who have supported her efforts as the long-time president and chief executive officer of Pikes Peak Hospice & Palliative Care Inc.

Barton has been a champion for Colorado Springs since she moved here from Northfield, Minn., in 1969, and an advocate for the terminally ill since she started volunteering for Pikes Peak Hospice more than 20 years ago.

Three years after she started with hospice, Barton traded her volunteer role for the head position at the Springs-based nonprofit organization. She helped build the 25-year-old hospice to a $15-million-a-year operation that employs 275 people who serve about 200 patients.

Barton said her longevity with Pikes Peak Hospice is probably related to her experiences as the daughter of a country doctor. After tagging along with her dad on numerous house calls, she decided on a career in nursing.

Barton said it seemed normal back then as she observed babies being born and people dying, but when she entered health care after college, “it (health care) had become so institutionalized.

“There is a separation in health care delivery that is frustrating to many professionals,” Barton said. “Hospice gives people the ability to do what nursing, social work and pastoral care professionals set out to do – work with people hands on and make a difference.”

Barton has made a difference in more ways than one. She helped start the rape crisis center when she was a nurse at St. Francis Hospital (now Penrose/St. Francis).

Barton veered off the health care path for awhile, and expanded her reach in the community with stints as a radio broadcaster and a YMCA fitness instructor. However, health care called again, and, just prior to hospice, Barton worked in managed care for Peak Health Plan, the first health maintenance organization in the Springs.

Pikes Peak Hospice has been Barton’s mainstay. She said people who work for hospice either love it or don’t tolerate it for very long. “We have many people who have worked here for more than 20 years,” she said. “There is renewal in this work, and there is sadness and angst but incredible courage and reflection about life’s priorities. There is not a place in health care where you can receive heartfelt gratitude almost any hour of any day.”

But hospice care has become bigger than a traditional, small nonprofit community-based service. Barton is facing daunting challenges, as corporate competition moves in. “Wall Street is hot on hospice because of an aging population, and big business is getting into hospice care,” Barton said.

“There are 105 hospices in Oklahoma, 77 are located between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. There are 40 hospices in Colorado.” Barton said health care corporations that have moved into hospice care are moving to Colorado because of a perceived need.

“Odyssey moved in and within a year’s time they were matching us in census,” Barton said. “They had six full-time marketing people, and it became very competitive. The Springs site was the fastest growing among all 64 Odyssey sites, until they got slammed by Medicare.” Odyssey is under investigation because of inappropriate Medicare claims.

Including Odyssey, there are two other for-profit hospice providers in the Springs – United Health Care and Preferred. Barton said a fourth is expected by the end of the year. “For the bigger companies, it’s about product line and Medicare standards only,” she said. “It’s basic hospice care, and, with 450 volunteers – 180 who provide direct patient care, we have fuller services. And we have a foundation that raises about $1 million a year to provide extras for the patients and their families.”

Barton said many residents are accustomed to one local, community-based hospice, unaware that others exist, so they mistakenly sign up with other companies thinking they’ve signed up with Pikes Peak Hospice.

“We never dreamed that we would face these challenges,” Barton said. The No. 1 lifelong challenge for the local hospice has been human fear. “People think it’s the last thing you ask for, the last thing you do, and families are filled with regret when they realize they could have had help.”

Helping is what Barton is about. “We are so blessed in this community with good people and a spiritual setting,” she said. “It’s a privilege to live here, and I think we owe the community in which we live. I worry about explosive growth, but it’s a community worth fighting for.

“If I had a mantra, it would be ‘we that are healthy and we that our strong need to make a difference.'”