Sue Birch, who has been CEO of the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association since 1994, will be the next executive director of the state’s Department of Health Care Policy and Financing.

Sue Birch, who has been CEO of the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association since 1994, will be the next executive director of the state’s Department of Health Care Policy and Financing.

Steamboat's Sue Birch named to Gov.-elect Hickenlooper's Cabinet

VNA leader to direct Colorado health department

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Learn more about transition efforts for the incoming administration of Gov.-elect John Hickenlooper at http://partnersfo.... On that page, click “Results,” “Committee reports” and then “Health Care Policy and Financing” to read a transition committee’s report about the department and recommendations for it under the incoming administration.

— Sue Birch got a little teary on the phone Thursday.

Emotions clearly were mixing as news and implications of the biggest job offer of her career continued to sink in.

Birch, who has been CEO of the Northwest Colo­­­rado Visiting Nurse Association since 1994, will be the next executive director of the state’s Department of Health Care Policy and Financing. She’ll start the new job on or about Jan. 18, after the Jan. 11 inauguration of Democratic Gov.-elect John Hickenlooper. Birch said she received the offer to work in Hickenlooper’s Cabinet late Wednesday.

In November, Birch was named one of 16 statewide co-chairs for Hickenlooper’s transition effort. She temporarily served as co-chairwoman of a health care policy and finance committee, which addressed state policies involving Medicaid and children’s health care. Birch and Hickenlooper have known each other for several years.

“Sue Birch has made herself an expert on how to provide medical care in rural areas with limited budgets,” Hickenlooper said. “Her regional and collaborative approach will serve well to address health care issues on a statewide basis.”

Birch’s acceptance of the Cabinet offer means a transition from her two-decade career of providing community health care in Northwest Colorado.

She began working with the VNA as a public health nurse in 1990, the same year she moved to the Yampa Valley. She’ll seek housing in Denver, but Birch said she and her family are not changing their permanent address.

“This is clearly the home for me and my family,” she said. “I’m not leaving our beautiful Yampa Valley.”

She’ll be missed here, nonetheless, in professional capacities.

Dr. John Merrill, of Hayden, president of the Northwest Colorado VNA’s board of directors, said he has mixed emotions about Birch’s new job.

“As a friend of hers, I am thrilled for her. It’s a wonderful challenge that I have no doubt she’ll conquer,” Merrill said Thursday. “On the other hand, as president of the board of the VNA, we will miss her terribly. She certainly has been a kind of matriarch the last 15 or 20 years.”

Broad scope

Yampa Valley Medical Center CEO Karl Gills said Birch and her staff have had profound, wide-ranging impacts on local health care.

“The VNA has certainly gone beyond what a traditional home health agency does, with their efforts in hospice, senior wellness, public health, any number of programs they’ve become involved in to better the health of the community in the valley,” Gills said. “That’s happened under her leadership and her vision, and we’ve all benefited from that.”

Merrill said the VNA’s 2011 budget is about $8 million, representing significant growth from its $3 million budget five years ago. He said the VNA is funded by local, state and federal governments, individual donors and state and national foundations.

Merrill said the VNA’s management of The Haven Assisted Living Center in Hayden, construction and operation of the Rollingstone Respite House in Steamboat and operation of a federally qualified community health center in Craig are key components of the VNA’s growing budget and scope.

“The only thing that comforts me about this situation is that Sue has assembled a really high-functioning management team at all three of our sites,” Merrill said. “Because of this … we will have the time to seek a suitable replacement.”

Merrill said the VNA board hopes to choose an interim executive director in the next week or two, to handle day-to-day operations. He said Birch’s last day with the VNA could be Jan. 14.

The board then will appoint a search committee to find a replacement for Birch. That person could be in place within two to three months, Merrill said.

‘Bittersweet’

Birch said she hopes to “invigorate the Cabinet with some fresh new rural and nursing perspectives.”

She’ll have plenty on her plate.

Her new department has an annual budget of more than $4.5 billion and nearly 300 employees. Health care policy and finance involves some of the largest portions of the state’s ailing budget, which totals more than $18 billion and faces a revenue shortfall estimated at $715 million.

Birch said one focus of her new department will be maximizing opportunities from the health care overhaul adopted this year, “to get as much access as possible for all Coloradans.”

“There will also be a huge need for increased capacity, because the limits for Medicaid and for eligibility and enrollment will be expanding in upcoming years,” she continued.

She said expansions of home- and community-based health care resources statewide could help bridge those gaps.

Expanding such resources has been a goal of her past 15 years in the Yampa Valley.

“It’s with bittersweet feelings that I move on,” Birch said. “I have such an incredibly high-performing and talented group that I work with.”

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