Memorial task force will mull Nov. ballot language

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The Colorado Springs City Council appears poised to move forward with a ballot issue to determine Memorial Health System’s fate — despite the $246 million it will cost to move its employees from the state’s public pension program.

This week, the council formed a task force that will review ballot language and complete work started by a former ballot task force.

“This feels like step one,” said Bob Lally, who chaired the Memorial Commission, a body that was formed to research options for Memorial and make a recommendation about what the city should do with it.

After months of discussion, the commission issued a recommendation in November that the municipally owned hospital be turned into an independent, nonprofit entity.

The City Council began moving in that direction and had planned to put the question to voters on the spring ballot.

But those plans were derailed two months later when Colorado’s Public Employees Retirement Association calculated that moving Memorial’s employees out of its system would cost millions.

Memorial is investigating PERA’s price claim with hopes of coming up with a different figure. Those figures are due by the end of June.

City and hospital officials are confident they’ll find a more reasonable price tag.

“There’s going to be movement on that — sooner rather than later,” said Larry Singer, a Chicago-based consultant who worked with the commission. “I think you’re going to see a considerably lower number.”

In the meantime, the new task force will be coming up with ballot language.

“I feel a real sense of urgency about this,” said Council President Pro Tem Jan Martin, who is leading the 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 care 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 Council agreed that the hospital needs to maintain its role as the largest provider of charity care in the city.

Lally noted 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.”

Jay Patel, a member of the Memorial Commissions said jobs are also at stake with the hospital’s status.

“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 new task force will begin meeting in the next few weeks.