Memorial: Hitting the panic button

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In what clearly was a panic move, Memorial Health System's placement of a full-page ad in the Gazette this week to promote the idea of converting the system to a nonprofit has backfired.

It appears the city-owned hospital was trying to persuade Colorado Springs City Council and the community to ignore an offer from a for-profit health system to buy Memorial and instead remain focused on switching Memorial to an independent nonprofit, the model favored by a Council-appointed study panel and Memorial CEO Dr. Larry McEvoy.

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But what they got for their $16,500 ad, which also will run Sunday, was a black eye from Council and questions about whether Memorial PR staff knows what they're doing. Friday's Gazette bannered the headline: HOSPITAL SLAMMED FOR AD BACKING NONPROFIT OPTION.

It's worth mentioning that the ad doesn't violate the Fair Campaign Practices Act, because the issue involving Memorial's ownership hasn't yet made it to the April 5 city election ballot. Once the issue is placed on the ballot, expected in late January, no public money can be expended on promoting or opposing the measure. Rather, public money can only be spent providing factual information.

But the ad's legality didn't stop City Council members from blasting Memorial for the ad, which ran Thursday, the very day Council met with Memorial board members to begin talking about ballot language for the nonprofit conversion.

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"I think the hospital should be neutral," Councilor Sean Paige said. "I'm very concerned it (ownership) has already become a political issue. When you go out and spent $16,000, there's a question of what's appropriate. I don't think Memorial resources should be used to politicize this. I think it's wrong."

Mayor Lionel Rivera also questioned the expenditure, saying people would be "turned off" by Memorial spending money designated for health care on newspaper ads.

Cari Davis, who runs Memorial's public relations and marketing shop, defended the ad in a brief interview with the Independent. "Our initial decision was based on the fact we wanted to make the community aware of what's happening," she said.

What's happening is that HCA-HealthOne of Denver has been trying to get its nose under the tent to buy the hospital. To do that, it has to stop the city from moving ahead with the nonprofit idea.

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McEvoy told the Independent that Memorial looked to advertising in the Gazette "because it has a broader readership to get to the broadest audience." However, before the meeting began, McEvoy told me during an informal chat that he revealed HCA's pitch to Memorial's entire staff, because he wanted to be forthright with them. He said employees are nervous about a sale and what it means for them.

Another big challenge, he added, is getting the facts out to the business community, so those folks would understand why the hospital wants to beat back offers from for-profit firms, a concept not easily swallowed by the corporate-minded.

Given his concerns, it seems odd McEvoy would choose the Gazette to reach employees instead of an internal e-mail or newsletter or employees meeting. If he wants to reach the business community, why did he not choose the Colorado Springs Business Journal? And if a broad audience truly was the goal, why did he not place an ad with the Independent, which has a greater readership in the 18-49 age group for its weekly edition than the Gazette has on any given day?

We're guessing, based on how it all went down, that Davis' office needlessly panicked. After all, what's the crisis? A majority of Council had previously stated publicly they support the nonprofit recommendation. Instead of pondering the questions of who Memorial wants to reach, how, why and with what message, she pulled the trigger on an ad by which the hospital now might be haunted throughout the upcoming campaign.

In case you missed it, here are some highlights from the ad, which was signed by McEvoy and Board Chair Arlene Stein, and was strictly words on a page — no design, no color, no creative presentation of any kind.

Memorial is at a crossroads and facing an uncertain future. That is why an independent Citizens' Commission just spent nine months evaluating a wide range of options. Their conclusion: preserving this city-owned hospital as a nonprofit is best for patients and for our community.

Through the Commission's due diligence and hard work, we know that becoming a nonprofit will ensure and protect Memorial's ability to provide quality patient care and keep decisions, earnings and jobs here in Colorado Springs.

... big out-of-state money just cannot and will not stay away until we protect Memorial once and for all. National corporate health care conglomerates have arrived to promote their agenda of buying Memorial. They are trying to side-step the Commission's process, thus ignoring considerable public input through a thorough, transparent process.

Davis assured me that this might only be the beginning of Memorial's advertising buys, and that other publications probably would be included in future spending. We doubt there will be future spending in this regard, given the Council's position. That's what political action committees are for.

Thursday's meeting, by the way, made it clear the council is moving ahead with a ballot measure to ask voters approval to make Memorial a free-standing nonprofit. Questions remain about how much the hospital will pay the city for that privilege, what stipulations will be made for board members and how Memorial will exit the state retirement plan for which it will be ineligible as a nonprofit.

After the meeting, as the room was clearing, sitting quietly in a corner was Kevin Walker, a local developer who represented HCA-HealthOne in its pitch this week to Memorial.

I asked him for his take on the meeting. "Not surprised," he said gloomily. Well, I told him, maybe your client will have another opportunity if voters defeat the April measure.

"Problem is," he said, "it will be hard to know what 'no' means." Truly. If voters don't go along with a nonprofit conversion, will it mean they want to sell or will it mean they want to keep Memorial just like it is?

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