More than Medicaid

Real Stories from Real Members of the Health First Colorado Program

How do you measure the impact of support? At Rocky Mountain Health Plans, we do it with stories — testimonies of real members of Health First Colorado (Colorado’s Medicaid Program) and their lives lived well because of the impact of their coverage. 

Medicaid is more than just health insurance. Medicaid makes a difference. For some, it’s a literal lifeline between life and death. It’s a resource for improved quality of life and an opportunity to overcome our most unexpected challenges. It’s a source of empowerment and an avenue for independence. And we’re inspired. We’re fueled by the drive and courage of these members. That’s why we’re challenging the stigma that often surrounds Medicaid coverage. We’re changing that narrative. Because for millions of Coloradans, it’s more than Medicaid.

See how Medicaid empowers Coloradans to thrive in their everyday lives.

Ian Engle – A Rally Cry Against Adversity

He fell 40 feet to the ground but landed in a position to effect change.

Ian Engle uses a wheelchair, but that doesn’t stop him from standing up for the rights of a community.

Ian Engle has never dealt well with apathy or complacency. He’s always challenged adversity and worked hard to better himself. This mentality earned him a position on the Michigan State wrestling team and fueled his success in school, where he received a history degree with plans for a career in academia. 

Ian now serves as the executive director of the Northwest Colorado Center for Independence (NWCCI), a departure from his planned career path. He often tells people he fell into this line of work — an intentional play on words: When he was 21, Ian fell 40 feet from the top of a tree.

“There wasn’t room for being a victim.”

When Ian awoke in the hospital, he learned the severity of his injuries: a crushed pelvis and spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed. His first thoughts weren’t about himself; instead, he thought about his mother and his younger siblings. He knew his injuries resulted from his actions but would hurt his loved ones the most, and he needed to tell them he was OK. He left no room for self-pity or depression. When his mother arrived, it was a beautiful moment. She simply was happy her son was alive and saw Ian as himself, not as someone different. It was a moment that changed his life. 

Ian’s hard work ethic transferred seamlessly into his recovery: He completed his inpatient rehab within six months of the accident. But then Ian received news that was almost as  devastating as  his paralysis: He had no insurance, so he was being discharged to a nursing home. As he left, he looked down Michigan Avenue and saw people marching with signs. There were hundreds of people in wheelchairs. He learned the march was part of a nationwide movement to advocate for disability rights and adaptive action, and he quickly joined the crowd — an experience that launched him into a career of disability advocacy and activism. 

Today, Ian and the NWCCI team work to overcome the stigma that people with disabilities are helpless. It comes with challenges, like determining how best to address an act intended to help but that instead becomes oppressive.  

“We need to break down the ‘us’ and ‘them,’’” Ian says. “If people knew better, they’d do better. They’re not trying to be rude or oppressive by helping me…they just don’t know any better.”

Ian and his team subscribe to a “learn by failing” mentality and are working to shift how human services are delivered. They focus on providing a participant-driven, peer-support system. It’s a strength-based approach that fosters independence and connects people to resources they can use to empower themselves — resources like Health First Colorado (Colorado’s Medicaid Program).

“Medicaid is a tool, a resource. It allows me to do things I wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.”

Ian participates in the Health First Colorado Buy-In Program for Working Adults with Disabilities. The program allows him to earn an income, pay a monthly premium, and receive Health First Colorado benefits. It’s quality insurance for which he wouldn’t otherwise be eligible. 

Even with his coverage, Ian admits he doesn’t enjoy going to the doctor’s office. He’s had his fair share of tests, needles, and medications over the past 30 years. But Health First Colorado helps make access to care more palatable for Ian and other individuals with disabilities who may have concerns or lack trust in the medical system. It helps address some of the most basic access barriers, like a lack of translation services or resources to support individuals with autism.

But as with any system, Ian acknowledges there’s room for improvement. “Every challenge is an opportunity,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for us to come out and have these important conversations around ‘What does good access to health care mean for everybody?’ and ‘How do we set up systems that accommodate people in a user-friendly way?’” To Ian, these opportunities help to close the gap between people with disabilities and those without, to grow, educate, and address ignorance. 

Ian is thankful to have met a broad community of people from various backgrounds who have come together for this common purpose. He describes it as a gravitational pull, where puzzle pieces combine to create a beautiful picture. And Ian wouldn’t give up who he is now; he enjoys his life. Thanks to advances in adaptive equipment, he stays active by kayaking and mountain bike handcycling. His job allows him to meet with and bolster the confidence of children with disabilities. And he can spend nearly every minute with his faithful service dogs, Montezuma and Mitakuye. 

But Ian admits he didn’t always have this positive outlook on life, noting there’s an irony to his optimism: His accident changed his perspective. “In some ways, I was kind of built for this. Going through adversity has galvanized me and made me a better person — and that’s not necessarily a given.”

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Justine Ager – A Silver Lining Shines Through

It could have been the end; instead, one survivor sees the bright side of her new life.

In her journey to recovery, Justine Ager finds her true self in helping others heal.

[This article contains references to domestic violence that may be distressing to some readers.] 

Justine Ager is a Colorado native who calls Steamboat Springs home. She is also a survivor. Justine radiates authenticity, and her drive for life is nearly tangible. She describes her furniture refurbishments in detail and excitedly shares her plans to launch a website to sell her handmade jewelry. Before the incident, she enjoyed snowboarding and barrel racing. Now, creativity is her outlet and passion. Her projects are vibrant, full of character and color.

“It’s just a day I’ll never forget.” 

Justine was trapped in a verbally and physically abusive relationship for two years. On the night of December 29, 2013, a violent domestic assault changed the trajectory of her life. An hours-long physical argument that lasted into the early morning hours culminated with Justine being choked and pushed from a third-story apartment balcony 43 feet to the ground.  

Her neighbor, an EMT, arrived home just as Justine fell and came to her aid. The moment the ambulance arrived, Justine died. She was resuscitated and transported to the hospital, where she was placed in a medically induced coma for two weeks. 

According to the doctors, two things saved Justine’s life that night: first, the steel rod she had placed in her spine as a teen to correct her scoliosis, and second, being unconscious before her fall. She suffered more than 20 injuries and spent three months in the hospital. Today, she continues to face physical limitations, including chronic neuropathy and blindness in one eye. 

She knows her recovery and new life would be far more difficult without her coverage through Health First Colorado (Colorado’s Medicaid Program) and access to transportation, including through the Northwest Colorado Center for Independence and the town’s paratransit service. Her medications and appointments with doctors and specialists continue to be extensive, so transportation is key to her independence. Her best friend is also in the process of becoming certified as a caregiver, and Justine is relieved she’ll have someone she knows and trusts available to help her with more difficult tasks.

“I really found my true self. I broke down all the barriers and opened all the doors — everything that stopped me from doing what I wanted.” 

But through it all, Justine focuses on the silver lining and has moved on from the accident. “I was the victim — but I’m not the victim anymore,” she proudly declares. She’s forgiven her ex for her own sake, has discovered new passions, and has renewed energy for helping others. Justine has built on her foundation of faith and now helps heal others through spiritual avenues — something she feels is her life’s true calling. And she stays active in the Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports (STARS) program, where she ski bikes during the winter and reconnects to her barrel racing days by horseback riding in the summer. Justine has served as an ambassador of the program, participating in fundraising events and speaking about the program’s impact on her. 

“There’s nothing I can’t do — I just have to find a new way to do it,” she says. 

And for Justine, that includes trying a new drip paint technique for her upcoming furniture project. 

Get free, confidential 24/7 support from the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Visit, call 800-799-SAFE (7233), or text “START” to 88788.

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Oscar Chavez – Making Moments Matter

One man’s fight for life leads to changes in perspective.

After Oscar Chavez’s world turned upside down, he began to see the upside of life.

It took only a split second for Oscar Chavez’s world to change. 

It was surreal how he could still hear everything: The calls of his companions as they searched for him, his young children’s cries for their father, Justin Beiber’s “Love Yourself” still playing faintly on the radio. The only sound missing was his own breath: He was lying still, not breathing, and fighting for his life. 

For Oscar, the resilience he was relying on to live was familiar; it was a characteristic he developed at a young age, along with his fierce sense of independence. He grew up in New Mexico, just miles from the Mexico border, where violence and gangs were a common way of life. He moved to Craig with his father when he was 11, but his teen years were tumultuous. By 15, he left his father’s house and later began working in the oil fields. It was hard work, but it was a job he loved and that gave him a purpose, cultivating a strong work ethic. He excelled and became a foreman at the age of 20. Just a few weeks shy of his 20th birthday, Oscar became a father for the first time.

“In just a split second, your whole life flips upside down.”

On the day of the accident, Oscar was returning from a camping trip ​​with his two young children, two adult companions, and his beloved dog, Roxy. He was in the passenger seat when they took a sharp turn too quickly and the Ford F-250 rolled multiple times, ejecting him through the open window. The injuries were extensive: His C6 and C7 vertebrae, left scapula, left clavicle, and all the ribs along his left side were broken, and both lungs were punctured. The difference between life and death came in the form of two off-duty first responders — a firefighter and an EMT — who had witnessed the accident and began administering care as soon as they arrived. Oscar was life-flighted to Grand Junction, where he underwent surgery and remained in a medically induced coma during his first two weeks in the hospital. 

When he awoke and came to understand the gravity of his injuries, Oscar felt lost. “What do I do from here?” he remembers thinking. He knew he couldn’t go back to work in the oil fields. As a single father, he was responsible for his children. How was he going to care for them? 

“Medicaid just covers so much…it’s really helpful. I couldn’t do it all by myself.”

At first, Oscar refused to ask for help; he was a strong 26-year-old and didn’t care how long it took him to do something as long as he was doing it himself. His body may have changed, but his resilience and need for independence remained untouched. His older brother assumed the primary caregiver role, helping Oscar adjust to the daily activities of his new life, and their two younger sisters offered support. Four months later, Oscar enlisted the help of a home health service, a benefit of his Health First Colorado (Colorado’s Medicaid Program) coverage. It was a welcomed relief for his brother and added support for them all, but it also opened a new sense of vulnerability for Oscar. He was grateful but struggled to accept the help — and that his boundaries needed to change.

“The first year was trial and error,” he admits. “I had to figure out how to work on myself and with the kids as well.”

Oscar now leans into the support his caregivers provide as they continue to learn from each other. There’s a shared understanding of the importance for Oscar to first try a task without assistance and that help is only given when he requests it. His independence is further bolstered by other benefits of his Health First Colorado coverage, including his wheelchair, physical therapy services, and transportation assistance from the Northwest Colorado Center for Independence. He can’t fathom what the costs would be without coverage and knows undoubtedly that he would be living a much different life without his insurance. 

He acknowledges that his perceptions of what truly matters in life have shifted and is focused on making every moment matter, refusing to take anything for granted — especially time with his kids. The activities they do together may look different than when they were younger, but they cherish the precious time together. At the center of it all is Oscar’s acceptance of his new life; he continues his journey forward.    

“If you keep thinking about the past, that’s where your mind will stay. You’ve got to move forward. Will we know why something happened? Maybe, maybe not.”

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Deena Armstrong – Prayer, Purpose, and the Power of Collaboration

Her faith through life’s challenges reveals the beauty in an intricate tapestry.

For Deena Armstrong, life’s biggest blessings come when looking outward at others.

Deena Armstrong is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 11, and woman of fierce faith. Her background is diverse: As the daughter of an Air Force officer, she’s lived in multiple countries and states and has moved 26 times throughout her life. She learned sign language as a teen to communicate with a neighbor-turned-friend who was deaf, an encounter that fueled her calling to become a sign language provider later in life, and worked as an EMT briefly after high school. Today, she works two part-time jobs and prioritizes her health and nutrition. Deena and her husband live happily in the town of Craig and hope to one day build on the nearby property where they keep their beloved horses — one of which changed the trajectory of Deena’s life. 

Almost 18 years ago, Deena was on a young horse and attempted to dismount after realizing she was no longer in control. She landed unevenly and suffered a compound ankle fracture and severely torn cartilage. Since the accident, she’s undergone four surgeries and endures constant, intense pain, despite her high pain tolerance. But that has been lessened by the impactful relationships Deena has since formed.

Deena first met Staci Nichols at a women’s retreat in Frisco, and the two immediately connected. Since then, they’ve become like family. Deena now contracts as a sign language provider for Staci, who is deaf, with the Northwest Colorado Center for Independence (NWCCI), Staci’s place of employment. Staci also encouraged Deena to apply for insurance and disability benefits through Health First Colorado (Colorado’s Medicaid Program) when she learned her friend lacked coverage. It was an act that proved to be both timely and lifesaving. 

“If I didn’t have Medicaid, we probably would have lost our house, our land. …We wouldn’t have been able to afford to have me in the hospital.”

In October 2021, Deena was hospitalized with COVID-19. Her husband, who has Guillain-Barré syndrome, was admitted with the same virus soon after. The outcome for both looked bleak, but Deena says they turned to their faith for comfort and trusted that God had a plan. She recalls pleading for her life through prayer and feeling an amazing peace wash over her as she extended her thoughts to others. 

Her husband was released from the hospital first. Soon, Deena joined him back home. “I probably wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t been able to go to the hospital,” Deena says. “Medicaid made that possible.”

Deena lives with long COVID now, and her Health First Colorado coverage has continued to provide her with the support she needs in her recovery. The NWCCI provided transportation to and from her appointments multiple times each week when she was undergoing physical therapy. She recently discontinued her oxygen use and now relies on a CPAP machine. 

“I think we’re all put here for each other; we’re not here just for ourselves.”

As she moves forward on her healing journey, Deena reflects on a movie she once saw. In it, there’s a comparison of life to a tapestry. At first glance, it can appear messy and disjointed — you can’t see the whole picture. But when you let God be in control, she says, you can see a new perspective and appreciate the beauty of life. 

“We’re all intertwined,” Deena adds, attesting to the power of collaboration and joining together. After all, it was Staci who encouraged Deena to apply for health coverage when she did — something that helped save Deena’s life. Staci plays a significant role in Deena’s life, an integral thread woven into her tapestry. 

“I think when you’re self-focused, you miss out on life. You have to get past yourself and start looking at others. Who is your neighbor? It’s not just the person who lives next door; it’s everybody. You should reach out to people…a smile could change somebody’s life. When you start looking outward instead of inward, I feel like God’s blessings really start flowing in your life.”

Learn more about Staci’s story and the impact she’s making with the NWCCI at​​nwcci.

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ReNae Anderson – Fighting Against Fear

A mother dragon raises her wings for equity.

After losing her sight, ReNae Anderson saw an opportunity for advocacy and systemic change.

ReNae Anderson was born with a love for art. It was a passion that led to her early career as a graphic designer. Then, at the young age of 27, everything changed.

The headaches began. Reliance on her reading glasses increased. Testing and discussion with her doctor confirmed a life-altering diagnosis: ReNae was losing her sight. A reaction to birth control pills had caused swelling to her optic nerve, creating pressure against the retina and wrinkling it. Doctor visits across the country followed, none of which produced a cure. Realizing she could no longer continue down her chosen career path, she returned to school to pursue a degree in social work. Over the span of 18 months, ReNae lost her sight completely.

After graduating, ReNae found employment with her previous internship. Then came the move to Eagle County, and ReNae and her husband started their family. She became active and well known in the community during her son’s early years, working part time in an afterschool program and volunteering with local advisory committees and boards. Through these activities, she championed equity and enacted positive change throughout the school and community. But when she was ready to search for full-time work, ReNae quickly witnessed the deep-seated biases often prevalent in society. The stigma surrounding a blind person’s ability to fulfill job requirements haunted her interview to interview, hindering her ability to secure a position — even with organizations at which she had previously volunteered. 

“Blindness is one of the most feared disabilities because people can’t imagine doing anything if they can’t see. And it’s not true. I just do things differently.” 

ReNae relentlessly continued her search and found employment with a small nonprofit, where she could finally use the skills she had honed throughout her years of volunteering. She was elevated in the organization, eventually earning a promotion to executive director. As she says, “People need to let go of their fear, step back, and watch a little bit to see what a person can do.”

ReNae was born in the year of the Dragon. The custom heritage shield her husband made for her depicts a mother dragon with her wings down, a symbol of love and care. But when it comes to being an advocate for those without a voice — those who are afraid or unsure of how to fight for what they need — the mother dragon raises her wings in an act of protection.  

“We can’t just leave people behind. We can’t.”

Today, ReNae serves as a community solutions specialist with Rocky Mountain Health Plans, where she uses her experience to shed light on gaps in access to healthcare and to connect underserved individuals to resources. She continues volunteering and serving on the board of directors of disability advocacy groups, councils, and community health centers. 

“I’m one voice,” she says, “and if I can help even one more person, that’s important to me.” 

But even a mother dragon needs support. ReNae finds assistance through the Health First Colorado (Colorado’s Medicaid Program) Buy-In Program for Working Adults with Disabilities. The program allows ReNae to work and earn an income that may have otherwise disqualified her from coverage. She pays a monthly premium for Health First Colorado benefits, including expanded medication coverage, and has access to additional services and support through waivers.  

ReNae smiles as she thinks about the analogy of the mother dragon. She often laughs when her son tells her to put her wings down over what he deems life’s more trivial issues.

But the laughter quickly fades and is replaced by unwavering determination when it comes to fighting for the needs of individuals with disabilities — and against the biased fears society often holds. 

“There needs to be an advocate for the blind — and I’m one of them.”

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