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Pressure mounting to delay Memorial vote

By: ANDREW WINEKE
January 20, 2011
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photo - A look at Memorial Hospital's original location on Boulder Avenue.     Photo by BRYAN OLLER, THE GAZETTE FILE
A look at Memorial Hospital's original location on Boulder Avenue. Photo by BRYAN OLLER, THE GAZETTE FILE 

Days before the Colorado Springs City Council decides whether to put Memorial Health System’s future on the April ballot, pressure is building to delay the vote until November or later.

Jim Moore, vice chairman of the Memorial board, said that, in speaking with community and business leaders in recent weeks, he’s heard little support for the April election.

“We’ve heard a pretty consistent theme — that is the recommendation that we take more time to provide information to the electorate,” he said.

Delaying the vote on whether to turn the city-owned hospital into an independent nonprofit carries its own risks, including a new council and mayor with less background on the proposal, potential voter apathy in an off-year election in November and a possible campaign against the proposal by for-profit hospital companies interested in buying Memorial. At the very least, Moore said, it would delay plans by Memorial’s leadership to grow and improve the hospital system, a vision Memorial’s board backs unanimously.

“There are risks in both directions,” he said.

Moore said he hasn’t made up his mind on the best timing, and added that it’s ultimately the City Council’s decision.

Keep Colorado Springs Healthy, an advocacy committee set up to support the nonprofit option, is sponsoring a telephone poll this weekend to get a better gauge on where voters stand. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the proposal on Tuesday. A poll Memorial sponsored in early December found about half of likely voters were willing to support turning Memorial into a nonprofit.

Dr. Larry McEvoy, Memorial’s CEO, argues that by becoming nonprofit, Memorial would grow into an innovative, regional leader in health care that would benefit both patients and the local economy. Keeping Memorial as-is, he said, puts it at a disadvantage as health care reform and rising costs squeeze hospitals. Still, he said, delaying the vote might be the wise move.

“I think the community is going to get one shot at this,” McEvoy said. “That shot’s got to count.”

One of the business leaders advising the council to wait is prominent developer Steve Schuck. Schuck said he supports getting the city out of the hospital business, but there are too many questions about the nonprofit proposal and that he needs more information before he decides whether to support it. One of the biggest unanswered questions is how much pension liability Memorial would face from withdrawing from the public employee retirement plan, PERA.

“It’s my sense that perspective is shared with just about everyone with whom I’ve interacted with on the issue,” Schuck said. “It only makes sense to me that it not be rushed.”

Mayor Lionel Rivera said that the PERA estimate is the only remaining obstacle and he expects to have that number by Monday. Barring a sky-high estimate, Rivera said he's comfortable allowing the voters to decide.

"It certainly doesn't hurt to allow the citizen voters of Colorado Springs to vote on the issue if they have well-presented ballot language and they understand the issues," Rivera said.

Councilman Randy Purvis said the risks of waiting outweigh the rewards. Purvis, who supports the nonprofit proposal, is on a task force that last week approved draft ballot language for the proposal.

“I think a delay only works in favor of those who want to cash out” and sell Memorial, Purvis said. “At this point, I think I’d just rather go ahead and do it in April.”

That’s despite Purvis’ unease about the proposal’s chances with voters.

“I think at best it’s a 50-50 shot,” he said.

Councilman Sean Paige said he absolutely opposes putting Memorial on the April ballot, although he said he’s still open to the nonprofit option.

“I’m convinced that rushing forward now is a recipe for disaster,” Paige said. “Make the case as airtight as you can and then put it to voters. We’re not even close to there.”

Councilwoman Jan Martin, who backs making Memorial a nonprofit, said she’d listen to the board’s advice about whether to delay the vote.

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