Replacing hospital is a legitimate need


We've all heard the famous line about "lies, damn lies and statistics."

The Memorial Hospital's Board of Trustees anticipated skepticism when it unveiled the results of a recent survey of construction options for a new county hospital.

The findings, presented publicly during two separate meetings Tuesday at the Holiday Inn, indicate that voters won't support a tax initiative to fund construction of a brand-new hospital by a 2-1 margin. That's hardly surprising. Voters have shown a reluctance to burden themselves with additional taxes if they can avoid it, no matter what project is at stake.

What is surprising is that the all-volunteer hospital board has had to endure so many slings and arrows trying to enlist public support for an affordable solution to the hospital dilemma. The aging 50-year-old hospital has outgrown its current facility and is suffering financially as people choose to travel to other facilities for their health care needs. Survey results indicate that satisfaction with the hospital has dropped over the last three years.

That's a legitimate concern. But no matter what it does to improve health care in the county, the board seems to take a beating. Recent letters to the editor have questioned the hospital's advertising budget, despite the fact that much of the spending is aimed at preventative care and keeping people healthy and out of the hospital. Others have questioned the hospital staff's attitude toward patients and their customer service.

A few people at Tuesday's 7 p.m. meeting even questioned the polling firm's research methodology, sampling protocols and wording of questions, hinting they think the hospital manipulated data to support a preconceived preference to build a partial replacement hospital on Russell Street.

Dianne Meppen, a Dan Jones & Associates project director who oversaw the survey, said she has "no clue" how the board feels about construction options. "They are honestly trying to figure out what the public wants," she said after the meeting. The polling firm stakes its reputation on its ability to accurately gauge public opinion and wouldn't risk professional suicide by trying to bend the numbers, she said.

Originally, the board planned to build a new hospital at its current location and went about purchasing several residential lots that border the hospital's property. That touched off a firestorm of controversy, so the board began seeking public input. Over the course of a year, two options have emerged --build a new hospital somewhere other than Russell street with additional tax dollars, or stay put and add on to the existing structure at no cost to taxpayers.

"Don't get us wrong -- we'd love to build a new hospital, but we need the community's help," Board Chairwoman Sue Lyster told the audience. But if voters are unwilling to foot the bill for an extra $4.5 million or so in taxes, then the hospital board doesn't really have a choice in the matter. They'll have to stay put and see if they can realistically afford an expansion project.

Even that is up in the air.

People seem willing to complain about the hospital, but unwilling to help it make the changes it needs to modernize, attract more patients, recruit specialists to the area or compete with Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs.

Judging from public outcry and sentiment, it's clear that many vocal community members think that the hospital and its board have something to gain from this project. They do -- a community facility they can be proud of and an environment where patients and doctors like to be.

Moffat County needs and deserves a top-notch medical facility. We urge people to let the hospital board do its work and accept the fact that they're trying to do the best they can with the resources at their disposal.

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