Campaign mounted to halt Memorial spin-off

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The fight about what to do with Memorial Health System is heating up – and those opposed to creating an independent nonprofit hospital – including a Denver hospital hoping to buy Memorial – are spending big bucks.

This week, direct mail flyers were mailed throughout the Springs, asking people to contact city council members and request that the issue be kept off April’s ballot.

Phone calls from a call center were designed to do the same thing.

Those who received the calls complained they couldn’t determine who was paying for them.

“They explained to me all the reasons why it shouldn’t be on the ballot: there wasn’t enough time; the hospital is a city asset; taxpayers deserve more,” said Mary Ellen McNally who received one of the phone calls. “And then they asked if they could connect me directly with Scott Hente, my city council person, so I could tell him to keep it off the ballot. I told them no.”

Council member Jan Martin reported receiving seven phone calls in the space of an hour about the Memorial issue. While she wasn’t certain, she said she believes those phone calls are a direct result of the calling campaign.

“I haven’t received any phone calls about Memorial up until then, and to receive seven voice mails that quickly – it makes me believe it’s from this group. Mostly the callers said they liked Memorial and that city council should leave it the way it is.”

The calls and the direct mail were being anonymously. When asked, the caller refused to say who was paying them for the calls. A local spokesman for Denver-based HCA/HealthOne said the company was behind the push.

The campaign is ironic in many ways, said Larry McEvoy, CEO of Memorial Health System.

“There’s no way Memorial can compete either politically or financially with someone with these deep pockets,” he said. “Our money has to go toward patient care. The other thing is that Memorial took a huge amount of criticism for articulating what we think is best for patients.”

He was referring to a newspaper ad and an in-house publication produced by Memorial in its bid to convince the community to support spinning off the health system into a nonprofit.

The anonymous nature of the opposing forces’ marketing push is troubling, McEvoy said.

“That should tell people something,” he said. “We’ve had an open process, full disclosure. This should raise questions about who else is in the pool. The other side isn’t as susceptible to criticism as we are.”

McNally expressed concern that some anonymous group had possibly purchased voter registration lists from El Paso County.

“How else could they know who my council member was?” she asked. “I’d really like to find out who’s behind this.”

Calls to the El Paso County clerk and recorder, Wayne Williams, went unreturned Wednesday.

McNally and Martin speculated the calls could have come from HealthOne, a national, for-profit system that has expressed interest in buying the hospital system. Recently, HealthOne employed Kevin Walker, a local public relations and marketing consultant. The group hoped to have Walker convince council members to put the ballot initiative on hold until HealthOne could lobby for a sale of the system.

Walker told Martin that HCA would “take an active role as the process goes forward.”

Calls to HealthOne’s office in Denver also were unreturned Wednesday.