Council creates task force for Memorial future

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Colorado Springs City Council shows every sign of moving ahead with the ballot issue to determine the future of Memorial Health System – despite the $246 million price tag to move Memorial employees from the public pension system.

The council formed a second task force to go over the ballot language, ironing out differences and filling in some of the blanks left by the first task force – a group made up of three city council members and three members of Memorial’s board.

“This feels like step one,” said Bob Lally, chairman of the commission, which disbanded in January. Despite having no official role, all nine members of the commission appeared at the city council meeting that was designed to brief the new members about the process and its final recommendation.

The commission recommended last November that the city should create an independent, nonprofit system from the municipal hospital. The process was derailed in January, when officials at the Public Employees Retirement Association said it would cost millions to move employees out of PERA.

“There’s going to be movement on that – sooner rather than later,” said Larry Singer, a Chicago-based consultant hired by the commission to help them navigate the complex health care industry. “I think you’re going to see a considerably lower number.”

The city has until the end of August to place the issue on the ballot. At that time, all the legal details must be spelled out.

“I feel a real sense of urgency about this,” said Jan Martin, president pro tempore of the council who will lead the second task force. “I don’t think we can wait.”

New council members expressed concern that the process be done correctly – noting that many of the documents drafted by the first task force were incomplete.

“I don’t want to get to Aug. 18 and discover that there were things that we should have done that we didn’t know we had to do,” said Councilman Merv Bennett. “These documents leave a lot of unanswered questions. I think people have a certain amount of mistrust in government right now, and we need to make sure that we have all the work done, so when we take the issue to the ballot we know that we can succeed.”

Bennett’s main concerns surrounded a nonprofit foundation to be set up by Memorial. Memorial will provide $5 million initial funding and at least $1 million annually to the foundation.

“But we haven’t said what this foundation will do, what the parameters are, what happens if the investments don’t work out,” he said. “We need to do this right.”

Lally said the foundation could play a significant role, either by providing behavioral health to veterans with post traumatic stress syndrome, or by becoming a research center for sports wellness in connection with the United States Olympic Committee.

The hospital needs to maintain its role as the largest provider of charity care in the Springs, council members agreed. Lally added that Memorial is the largest Tricare provider – the military’s version of health insurance – west of the Mississippi River.

“That’s something to consider,” he said. “If it’s sold to a for-profit, there’s no guarantee they would maintain either charity care or Tricare.”

Lally argued that Colorado Springs could become the headquarters of a regional hospital – one that reached beyond the city limits.

“At Poudre Valley, they grew faster than the population, by reaching out to other groups, creating joint ventures,” he said. “Memorial could be the headquarters for a regional hospital, but we can’t do that now.”

City charter prohibits joint ventures outside the energy industry, so Memorial is hamstrung in its ability to create an integrated system.

A stronger Memorial with a wider focus equals more jobs, said commission member Jay Patel.

“Every job created at Memorial equals more than two support jobs,” he said. “If a for-profit buys it, we estimate that it could lose 1,200 jobs because all the office jobs would go somewhere else.”

The council’s newly formed task force will pick up where the last mayor’s task force left off, with meetings starting in the next few weeks.

However, it will take a new vote from the current city council to place the issue on the ballot. The last city council passed a resolution to place the issue on the November ballot, but current council is not bound to that.

“If we do this, we need to put this council’s stamp on it,” Bennett said. “We need to not just agree to do it; we need to believe in it.”