Doctors: Memorial is suffering

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Doctors who attended a City Council meeting this week had a message for city leadership: Turn Memorial Health System into a nonprofit.

Oh, and hurry up.

Speaking in favor of a ballot initiative this week that asks whether the city should end its 62-year obligation to levy taxes if Memorial Health System’s finances needed help, physician after physician said that the uncertainty about the hospital’s future was harming Memorial.

“This has gone on so long it’s impossible to recruit talented staff, and talented staff members are leaving in droves,” said Dr. Mark Duster,  director of Memorial’s Children’s Hospital

Duster said there was a perception that the hospital wasn’t valued by the community or City Council, because there continued to be delays about making a decision.

“This has been thoroughly vetted,” he said. “The commission spent nine months and dove deep into those issues. It’s time to act.”

Not everybody was in favor of the nonprofit option. Several people spoke against putting anything — even the mill levy — on November’s ballot.

Former Colo. Sen. Andy McElhaney said he had received “knocks on his door” to lead the opposition to the ballot measure.

“I don’t want to do that,” he said. “But I do think we need to look at more options, get more information.”

McElhaney said the PERA question still was to be decided, and it was too early to rush into the decision. PERA has said it will take about $245 million for Memorial to exit the public pension plan, something it must do if it is no longer owned by the city.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” he said.

The standing-room audience — made up of emergency doctors, cardiologists and trauma surgeons for the most part — showed frustration with the bureaucratic pace of the process.

“When I have a patient who’s bleeding, and I have his family waiting — I can’t sit around and wait. I have to act,” said surgeon Dr. David Corry. “Memorial is bleeding.”

And a retired cardiologist from Pikes Peak Cardiology told the city council that that group was the only one that hadn’t yet signed a partnership agreement with Penrose-St. Francis. Failure to act, he said, was only playing into the hands of the competition.

“You’re playing into the hands of people who want to buy this beautiful asset at rock bottom prices,” Duster said.

The council did act, forced against a 5 p.m. deadline Tuesday to get the issue on the November ballot, the council voted seven to two to place the initiative on the ballot. The language approved only removes the potential mill levy, a tax that has never been used.

And, the council voted to get more people involved — Mayor Steve Bach and the Regional Leadership Forum will guide the RFP process, which will be paid for by the group that eventually wins the right to run the hospital. The City Council committed to a special election in 2012 to lease the hospital, which will also be paid for by the group chosen to lead the hospital.

The current hospital administration can send an RFP, but council member Tim Leigh said they shouldn’t be involved in the task force or the RFP process any longer.

“In my view, the administration has inappropriately pushed their own plan,” he said. “They don’t need to be involved any longer.”

An audience member asked: “Will there be involvement from the medical community?” and council President Scott Hente said the process would be open to anyone who wanted to participate.

Two council members voted against the initiative, Lisa Czelatdko and Angela Dugan. Czelatdko was opposed to removing the mill levy.

“We are removing a safety net that is in place for a reason,” she said. “And we’re removing it before we know who is taking over the hospital. What if they default? Will City Council have to bail them out?”

Dugan didn’t believe that the nine months and 55 meetings of the citizens’ commission or the subsequent weekly meetings of two task forces was enough.

“I’m sorry, I don’t think your work was complete,” she said to boos from the audience. “I just don’t think there were any other options looked at, examined. I’ve only heard about this one.”

Councilman Merv Bennett acknowledged the “elephant in the room,” the Public Employees Pension Association.

The public pension gave a $245 million figure for Memorial to exit the plan, as it must do once it’s no longer owned by the city. PERA and Memorial are in negotiations to lower the figure, but no number is expected until the beginning of 2012.

“We’ll have to address that when we have the number,” Bennett said.

The vote seemed to please the medical community assembled in the packed city council chambers.

“I’m encouraged,” said Memorial surgeon Dr. Greg Carlson.

But while he was glad to see the council moving forward, cardiologist Dr. David Greenberg said it was frustrating to watch the council repeat the work done last year by the citizens’ commission.

“But, it is a step forward,” he said.