Editor’s note: Find a cited version of this column at http://www.vaildaily.com.
In 2016, the Vail Valley Medical Center (now Vail Health) released a study outlining the health needs of the community. Mental health services was one of the top ones, and VVMC admits it has only two social workers on staff to provide, at best, stabilization and referral to out-of-county facilities.
The VVMC report estimates that as many as 25 percent of Eagle County residents will at some point need some degree of mental-health services, a number far higher than will ever need orthopedic surgery, which is the cornerstone of Vail Health.
Yet with more than $366 million in cash, receivables and liquid investments showing in the hospital’s most recently available tax returns, and a tax-free net profit (or excess revenues) of more than $45 million in the first six months of this year alone, the VVMC report offered no plans to expand services to serve this glaring need in our community.
Indeed, not one cent of the $300 million expansion of the VVMC is directed at providing mental health care. Per a conversation with Chris Lindley, who is the director of Eagle County Public Health and the VVMC’s response in the implementation plan, none of the expansion will deal with this issue.
This shameful situation seems not to bother Chairman Mike Shannon and his board or CEO Doris Kirchner, probably because mental health care is not a glamorous or profitable line of business, as is taking care of famous athletes and attracting rockstar doctors.
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To address this pressing need, the county government is stepping in, and that means spending tax dollars to provide much-needed mental-health services. It also means taxes must be raised someplace, and in this case, the county has proposed a marijuana sales tax. The proposed tax would raise $1.2 million from pot smokers for mental-health care.
That amount is equal to about five days of the net profits (aka excess revenues) for the first half of this year to the VVMC, which enjoys tax-free status because its sworn mission is to provide medical care for the Eagle County community.
I’m very conflicted over supporting this tax. I fully support the concept of addressing one of our community’s most pressing social issues and applaud the commissioners for taking a stance, and for once, it’s a tax I won’t be paying. The other sad reality is VVMC is immune from public accountability for failing to address this issue and is governed by a board that appoints its own successors and holds closed-door meetings, insulated from public scrutiny, seeming to really not care what the public thinks of them. They have a slick public-relations department and promote themselves mercilessly wrapped in the cloak of respectability of a nonprofit hospital “here to serve the community.”
Mental health is health care, and VVMC has vast resources (including more than $12 million in accrued profits and donations invested offshore in the Caribbean and Central America) to address this issue already, and those resources are the result of local residents paying far more than the costs incurred by VVMC for many years.
Since 2001, annual revenues of VVMC have increased an average of 22.8 percent, while net income (or excess revenue, as they call it) has increased an average of 104 percent. When earnings increase nearly five times faster than revenues, and cash piles up, it is because prices have risen faster than the cost of providing the services rendered.
But instead of helping out those in need of mental health they chose to (amongst other things) provide a $68 million clinic for the Steadman Philippon orthopedic group and spend millions bringing in a stem-cell research center. It is unlikely 25 percent of residents (which is the percentage estimated to someday need mental health assistance) will ever need the services of an orthopedic surgeon or benefit from stem-cell research in their lifetimes.
I would urge the Eagle County Commissioners to actively engage in a dialogue with VVMC to see if VVMC is willing to step up to the plate here and invest five days of its profits annually in providing substantial mental-health services to the community.
This could eliminate the need for more taxes on a county that is already burdened with some of the highest health care costs in the state, as noted in a 2016 study done by the Colorado Division of Insurance. It would certainly make this tax more palatable to the voters, and frankly, spending double the amount would probably provide some excellent care for many local residents in need.
Chris Neuswanger is an Edwards resident.