Community voices concerns about hospital merger at town hall meeting
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — One year after Yampa Valley Medical Center merged with the UCHealth system, CEO Frank May said he frequently hears one question: “Are we still a community hospital?”
"Yes, we are," May said during a presentation in front of about 75 people at a town hall meeting Tuesday night.
“We are part of a bigger system, but there are still a lot of decisions made locally,” he said. “I’m not going to tell you everything is rosy and great. There are challenges, but I will tell you we made the right decision for the good of the community.”
However, during the Q & A following May's presentation, many in the audience expressed concern and doubt about UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center still being a community hospital.
May repeatedly said the hospital board represented the community and acted in the best interest of the community.
“I disagree,” said Paula Cooper Black, a longtime Steamboat Springs resident and a former City Council member.
By all appearances, Black said, everything is labeled “UCHealth,” and “The old hospital was erased in one fell stroke of the pen.”
May said UCHealth did indeed have a “strong rebranding” push, and that being part of a large corporation had its positives and negatives, but if it meant growing services for the community, it was the best path forward.
Black also asked where the estimated $105 million in profits from the sale went.
May said it was allocated in “three different buckets” — strategic capital, $50 million; the Yampa Valley Health Care Foundation, $20 million; IT integration and ongoing routine capital, $35 million.
Gary Haberlan, a former foundation board member, associate administrator and hospital pharmacist for nearly 35 years, began his comments by saying he had the highest regard for the medical staff, but he did not understand the reasoning behind the merger, especially when the hospital had a “healthy and substantial” bottom line in 2015.
Haberlan also questioned whether the $20 million for the foundation would truly benefit the greatest community needs or whether it would be funneled back into the hospital.
May promised it would be used for the benefit of the community.
Another common theme was cost of care and why UCHealth has not taken steps to lower costs.
“We all know it is a problem,” May said.
While some members of the audience said patient costs at the Steamboat hospital were some of the highest in the region if not the state, May countered, saying costs were in line with comparable hospitals.
One person questioned why so many people, including county employees who are incentivized to find less expensive options, leave the Yampa Valley for cheaper health care on the Front Range.
“I agree we’ve got to do something about the cost structure,” May said.
One man in the audience said he and his wife had recently relocated to Steamboat from Littleton, and as he searched for new local health care providers, he heard from a number of people in the industry who shared with him reservations about the direction the hospital was taking.
May said there are many issues surrounding the direction of health care in general, and he shares that discomfort.
Asked about underutilized space in the hospital, specifically the area under the new cancer center, the former Doak Walker Care Center and the old Safeway building in Craig, May said that none of that square footage was sufficient for the new orthopedic and spine center. He said those spaces won’t be wasted and will used for “growth in program development” in the next four or five years.
Some of the most heated comments came around the planned construction of the new orthopedic center. May said the hospital is in the final design stage, with construction anticipated to start in the spring and an opening around May 2020.
Former hospital foundation board member Nancy Spillane asked why the hospital was advertising for new surgeons “to replace our own local physicians.” She argued a joint venture would reduce costs and be more beneficial both to patients and existing local orthopedic surgeons.
May said a business decision was made, and the opportunity he offered to some of the local surgeons was declined. He added that the negotiating parties “chose different paths.”
“I thought my hospital would work harder to find common ground,” Black said.
The last comment, and most impassioned, of the three-hour meeting came from orthopedic surgeon Michael Sisk, who has provided orthopedic care in the Yampa Valley for 19 years.
“You are running local orthos out of town,” Sisk told May. “You are destroying our business.”
Sisk said he and other orthopedists have long been working to drive costs down for patients.
“You’ve blocked us, because it’s all about the money,” Sisk said.
Sisk's comments were met by applause from a majority in the audience. May said he disagreed.
“The whole hospital is becoming a mega-corporation run by a few people in Denver,” Sisk continued. “And they don’t care about any of you. They care about money and power.”
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @KariHarden.