Vail Daily column: The cost of healthcare | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: The cost of healthcare

Doris Kirchner
Valley Voices

The high cost of health insurance is a topic of concern for everyone, especially me. As the president and CEO of Vail Valley Medical Center, my top priorities every day are improving patient outcomes and controlling the price of health care services for the people in our community. As a longtime resident of Eagle County with family and friends who require the hospital's services, I am committed to making health care more affordable. While Vail Valley Medical Center does not have direct control over certain factors that drive health care costs, such as an individuals' wellness or insurance premiums, I assure you the hospital is working hard to make our services affordable. Here are some of our initiatives:

• Limiting our price increases to less than 2.8 percent annually during the past three years while other hospitals have averaged 4 to 7 percent increases.

• Reducing urgent care pricing, starting Sept. 6. Our urgent care clinics in Avon and Gypsum have operated as a combination of urgent care and emergency department for many years, therefore carrying higher costs for patients. Our new model is based on traditional urgent care capabilities — including affordable pricing.

• Making prices more transparent. Patients should know the range of what they're going to pay up front, so we have assigned a task force to improve our ability to provide cost estimates at all of our locations across Eagle County.

• Participating in insurance products that provide increased savings to the customer. Some insurance providers are willing to work with us to create insurance products that allow individuals and businesses to receive exceptional care at more affordable pricing.

• Offering bundled services for a discounted price. An example would be one fixed price for an orthopedic surgery, which would include the hospital, surgeon, anesthesia and physical therapy fees. We're not there yet, but we're getting close.

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• Working with local employers to offer direct contracting arrangements at increased discounts. If you're a local employer, then please reach out to Chief Financial Officer Ted Sirotta by calling 970-479-7238 to explore ways to reduce health insurance costs to your employees.

• Making our Financial Assistance Program easier for patients to qualify. VVMC has always offered financial assistance, but we're expanding the program and will better communicate your options.

We're not doing this alone. To explore solutions, we've met with the Colorado Insurance Commissioner Marguerite Salazar, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, State Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, Sen. Kerry Donovan and representatives from the offices of U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. We've also met numerous times with concerned locals and officials.

Like many goods and services in our region, there is a premium paid for high-quality health care in our community. Due to the higher cost of living and housing challenges for our nearly 900 employees, we offer higher wages and competitive benefits to attract and retain exceptional talent. With that in mind, our VVMC clinical staff, which does not include the for-profit orthopedic physicians, is paid between the 50th and 75th percentile of clinicians in the U.S. This approach allows VVMC to keep some of the state's top physicians and nurses full-time and year-round, right here in Eagle County.

Since our founding in 1965, Vail Valley Medical Center has grown with our communities, striving to meet the growing health care needs of our residents and visitors from around the world. Many people don't realize that Vail's reputation for world-renowned orthopedics has allowed us to provide services you won't find in most other rural hospitals. Ancillary dollars generated by orthopedics get redistributed across Eagle County, sometimes into services that don't necessarily make money, but do save lives. Take our new cardiac catheterization lab, for instance, which has saved more than 100 lives since opening in February of 2015.

While residents of most mountain towns have to travel for health care, Vail Valley Medical Center provides comprehensive local cancer care at Shaw Cancer Center, physical and occupational therapy at Howard Head Sports Medicine, the area's only Level III Trauma Center, a broad range of specialists and some of the most trusted surgeons in Colorado. In addition, as an independent, nonprofit medical center, our revenue stays right here in Eagle County and is reinvested in invaluable programs like ThinkFirst, which donates more than 1,100 helmets to local children annually; free doctor talks; placement of 50 defibrillators in partnership with Starting Hearts; summer lunches for public school children; health fair screenings; high school physicals and athletic team coverage; charity care and more.

Some may choose to travel to a bigger city for less expensive health care, but I urge you to consider the associated costs of travel, time off work, daycare and lodging. According to a recent study, patient migration from rural to urban hospitals has accounted for the closing of 50 rural hospitals across the United States this decade with 283 additional rural hospitals at risk of closure. When hospitals close, the impact is significant: patients have no choice but to seek care farther from home, jobs are lost and the value of the community is diminished.

The founders of Vail knew that a first-class community would need first-rate medical care, which is why Vail Valley Medical Center was built in 1965. Unlike other rural hospitals, which receive millions of dollars annually through mill levies, VVMC doesn't receive tax dollars from community members. Instead, we must be fiscally responsible with the dollars we generate and additionally rely on philanthropy to help fund the purchase of state-of-the-art technology and equipment, attract and retain top-tier medical staff, and fund the wide range of programs and services we offer.

While other mountain hospitals have built new facilities or dramatically renovated during the past 15 years, Vail Valley Medical Center has been saving dollars to make a significant investment in improving health care through our current Vail campus expansion. By using a portion of these cash reserves toward the revitalization of the Vail campus, we have been able to move forward on our master facility plan, due for completion in 2020. Philanthropy will be essential in funding this project and maintaining some of our reserves. These decisions are guided by our volunteer board of directors and we believe them to be fiscally prudent.

The existing state of health care across the country poses much greater challenges today than those we faced as a fledgling medical clinic for skier injuries in the '60s. However, with a skilled and compassionate team of local experts, Vail Valley Medical Center is saving lives, keeping people active and working hard to serve the community where we live, work and play.

Doris Kirchner is president and CEO of the Vail Valley Medical Center.