Leadville’s St. Vincent Hospital to shut down after 135 years
November 18, 2014
In 1879, a group of nuns from Kansas arrived in Leadville to provide medical services to the booming mining town. Now, after 135 years of providing care to the town and surrounding rural areas, St. Vincent Hospital is closing its doors.
The 25-bed hospital at 10,152 feet announced on its Facebook page Saturday, Nov. 15, that it will phase out its services over the next few months and no longer serve the roughly 7,300 people who live in Lake County.
Because of a broken heating system that didn't meet code, the long-term care unit shut down Monday, Nov. 17. About a dozen elderly patients living at the hospital were forced to move out, and the hospital has helped place them in other nursing home facilities. The closest ones to Leadville are in Salida, Kremmling, Grand Junction and the Front Range.
The surgery department will close this week, and the hospital's home oxygen, home health and physical therapy services and its general practice clinic will close in January.
“I’m shocked by the number of people who have come up to me since the vote and said, ‘I didn’t believe it would happen.’”
Hospital administrators are talking with local governments to see whether they can take over ambulance services, which likely would increase costs to patients, and the emergency department and its support services will be the last to shut down.
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The entire building is scheduled to close March 31.
"It's a very sad thing," said Sarah Vaine, CEO of the Summit Community Care Clinic. "The community really needs those resources."
About 20 percent of the uninsured and underinsured people who visit the Care Clinic come from outside Summit, mostly from neighboring Park and Lake counties, Vaine said.
Both the clinic and St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco expect more people to come from those areas because of the closure, but don't foresee large influxes of patients.
Paul Chodkowski, CEO of St. Anthony, said Summit County's hospital also struggles with low patient volumes like St. Vincent, but doesn't have any of that hospital's infrastructure, facilities or capital reserve problems.
St. Anthony could easily absorb any added demand created by the loss of St. Vincent, he said, and St. Anthony will continue to communicate with the Leadville hospital to coordinate care.
Dr. Jim Oberheide, a Care Clinic founder and family practice physician who has worked at St. Vincent, called the closing bad news for Leadville, but not unexpected.
"The days of small rural hospitals having full facilities and expecting to do everything is not realistic," he said.
At the same time, he added, Leadville can be isolated, especially with winter weather, so the loss of nursing home services will have a huge impact, as will the closure of the emergency room, which stabilizes patients before they're transported elsewhere.
A LONG TIME COMING
The hospital has been grappling for years with high workforce turnover, administrative vacancies, deteriorating facilities, outdated equipment and locals who've chosen to use medical services farther away.
"It's been struggling for a long time," Vaine said. "It's a testament to their commitment to the community that they've stayed open as long as they have."
Karen Rinehart, the hospital's director of community relations, said the physical plant needs to be replaced, the boilers break down almost daily and the pipes that deliver heat are corroded. The current HVAC system could fail at any time.
Like other rural hospitals, St. Vincent has experienced financial pressures from increasing health care regulations, rising costs, decreasing reimbursements from government and private insurance.
Management changes in the last few years have helped slow, but not stop, the loss of patients. During the hospital's prime, the surgery suite performed 30 surgeries a month; recently, it has averaged 11.
The hospital now employs 107 full- and part-time staff members, as well as roughly 45 so-called PRNs — health care professional who work shifts about once a week or as needed. About 72 percent of the employees live in Lake County.
Rinehart said payroll and benefits amount to around $7 million a year.
In 1988, voters created a taxation district to support St. Vincent, which began benefitting from a mill levy of 5.481. That tax rate hasn't been raised since.
The current board members and administrators have been around for about three years, Rinehart said.
Before that, she said, "We don't know what those boards did, and we don't know what the staff was thinking."
To address long-term fiscal issues, the hospital's board sold its Buena Vista medical clinic in 2011. Rinehart said administrators have looked for funding sources everywhere, including asking donors, private lenders, grant providers and local governments.
"We have just been working every angle we can," she said.
VOTERS SAID NO
After 26 years without raising the property tax rate, the hospital proposed an increase that was shot down by voters in the Nov. 4 election.
While campaigning, hospital staff and supporters pointed out that Colorado Mountain College's mill levy is lower than the hospital's but the college receives more money because Climax Molybdenum pays into that tax base. The mine was allowed to opt out of paying taxes to fund the hospital under state law when the mill levy was first adopted because it owns more than 50 percent of the property value in Lake County.
The proposal would've increased the property tax rate from a mill levy of 5.481 to 16.443. That would have meant a tax increase from $43.62 to $87.26 per $100,000 of residential property and $158.94 to $476.84 per $100,000 of commercial property.
"The magnitude of that increase was pretty striking, I think, to the electorate out there," Chodkowski said.
The roughly $1.6 million a year raised would've provided about 14 percent of the hospital's operating budget.
Rinehart said the hospital's message to voters was clear that voting no on the tax increase would mean the hospital would close.
"It's mind-blowing that people would allow, that the citizens would allow this to happen," she said. "I'm shocked by the number of people who have come up to me since the vote and said, 'I didn't believe it would happen.'"
She said she's already heard of economic ramifications, including real estate deals ready to close that fell through after prospective buyers learned they soon wouldn't have access to the hospital.
The hospital is still hoping to finance its emergency services through a $1 million grant promised by the Department of Local Affairs for replacing the heating system. The grant requires matching funds, which Rinehart said could be provided by the Lake County Leadville Economic Development Corp.
She said that money would help sustain emergency services but wouldn't be enough to stabilize St. Vincent's finances.
"The physical plant will shut us down if nothing is done, no matter all our efforts," she said.
She said St. Vincent is continuing to seek help, and any investors, donors or health care partners interested in discussing solutions can contact CEO Joyce Beck at email@example.com.
For hospital updates, visit the St. Vincent Facebook page at facebook.com/LeadvilleHospitalFoundation.