All await Suthers opinion on Memorial Hospital sale

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State Attorney General John Suthers’ decision to make a personal appearance May 25 before the Commission on Ownership and Governance of Memorial Hospital is creating a buzz.

First, the appearance is rather unusual.

How often do high-level state officials personally attend a local board’s meetings — particularly when the issue is of limited interest in the rest of the state? Not very.

Suthers is from Colorado Springs, of course, and has ties here. He also has firsthand knowledge of the hospital system and the issues surrounding it — including the many times the city has considered selling Memorial.

That could be the extent of it, in terms of explaining his coming appearance.

On the other hand, his opinion — needed before the commission can move forward in deciding which option to pursue — could represent good news in the minds of cash-strapped city officials.

Suthers will be discussing whether he thinks Memorial falls under the Colorado Hospital Transfer Act.

If Suthers opines that Memorial is not subject to the transfer act, then the city could gain a one-time cash infusion of tens of millions of dollars.

But if his opinion is otherwise, then the city won’t get any of the money from the sale of the hospital — assuming the commission actually chooses to make a sale recommendation and that voters approve a sale.

There’s a lot of “ifs” to this, and it’s hard to say what the attorney general will announce. It’s not a formal opinion, because that won’t come until there’s an actual deal in place with a prospective buyer and the papers are ready to sign. At that point, Suther will examine the details of the sale and decide whether there’s a conflict with state law.

The ramifications of what he says on Tuesday will have a lasting effect on the rest of the commission’s work.

Legal experts say the opinion is needed because the law discusses non-profit hospitals, which includes Memorial, but not municipal hospitals, a category Memorial also falls into.

The law was passed in 1998, after a large number of nonprofit hospitals sold to for-profit corporations. Drafted by consumer groups, the Colorado Hospital Association and the state attorney general’s office, the act is intended to keep access to care for the indigent in place.

No one is willing to speculate about what the AG might say Tuesday. But Ed Kahn, senior counsel at the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, says the question is a tricky one.

“If it were solely a nonprofit, it would be clear,” he said. “If it’s sold to a for-profit entity, then the money has to go to create a charity to be used in the same way. But Memorial is a municipal hospital. It’s definitely interesting.”

Rising premiums

Health-insurance premiums for policies covering Colorado and Wyoming workers have increased an average of 7 percent above 2009 levels.

A new employer survey by the Mountain States Employers Council also reports businesses pay 85 percent of premiums for health policies, a level unchanged during the past three years.

“Health-care costs continue to be a major area of concern for employers,” said Michael Severns, MSEC president and CEO. “However, employers continue to pay for the majority of health-care premiums on behalf of their employees.”

The survey showed growing interest among employers in offering consumer-driven health-care plans as an option in worker benefits packages.

Such plans include Health Savings Accounts, established by the federal government in 2003. These accounts allow people to set aside money for future qualified medical and retiree health expenses on a tax-free basis.

Twenty-seven percent of Colorado and Wyoming employers surveyed by MSEC recently said they now offer the accounts as an option for their employee benefit plans, up from 21 percent in 2009, 18 percent in 2008, 15 percent in 2007 and 7 percent in 2006.

Amy Gillentine can be reached at amy.gillentine@csbj.com or at (719) 329-5205. Friend her on Facebook.