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OPINION | Act now to protect health care access in Grand County

Jason Cleckler, Middle Park Health CEO
Grand County Commissioner Richard Cimino

People choose to live in and visit Grand County because of the beauty, quality of life and access to the outdoors and recreation. Part of what makes our region so appealing is a local hospital system that provides residents and visitors alike with high-quality emergency services, specialty care, mental health care and general care. Unfortunately, this integrated health care system is at risk due to a series of proposed ballot measures that could erode the practice of medicine in Colorado, escalate health care costs and expand health care deserts—especially in rural areas like Grand County.

If these ballot measures make their way to voters this fall, they would eliminate reasonable limits on the amount of money people can collect when suing health care providers. Patients absolutely deserve fair compensation for negligence, with no cap on economic damages likes lost wages or long-term health issues. Yet, non-economic damages for pain and suffering should have a reasonable limit to maintain our state’s balanced health care environment and keep costs stable for everyone else.

If these measures succeed in removing caps on non-economic damages, statewide health care costs would surge by billions per year, as estimated by COPIC, a Colorado-based medical liability insurance carrier. It could escalate overhead and dramatically increase administrative burden for health care providers. In states with non-economic damage caps that are too high or don’t exist, practices and hospital units have filed for bankruptcy, contemplated closing or closed altogether because of astronomical verdicts. Ultimately this limits access to care for patients and could impact the economic development of rural communities.

Rural hospitals throughout Colorado, including Middle Park Health, run on slim margins if they have a margin at all. More than 70% of Colorado hospitals fail to make a sustainable margin for the long term, according to the Colorado Hospital Association. This percentage is higher among rural hospitals. If costs rise and hospital revenue can’t cover them, the result could be loss of staff, longer wait times and cuts to services.

Patients in small communities like Grand County can’t afford to lose access to critical emergency or mental health services. We know from decades of data that being able to access emergency care in under an hour leads to significantly better outcomes. Imagine if you or a loved one suffered a heart attack, were in a serious ski accident or were battling cancer. Having speedy access to a nearby hospital isn’t a luxury — it’s the critical thread between survival and tragedy.

We know state lawmakers are committed to reducing the cost of health care and improving access, particularly in rural communities across Colorado. These proposed ballot initiatives, backed by trial attorneys, are the antithesis to these goals.

That’s why we support Senate Bill 130, which could help prevent the proposals from reaching voters this fall. This measure could protect patients from the ripple effects of soaring medical malpractice premiums and ensure continued access to quality care without creating health care deserts. Senate Bill 130 offers a balanced approach, raising the non-economic damage cap responsibly, from $300,000 to $500,000 over the course of five years, to provide fair compensation to patients for negligence while still ensuring a fair and sustainable health care system.

We urge lawmakers to pass SB-130, which will stabilize health care costs and ensure that physicians and hospitals in rural areas like ours can continue to provide essential services to residents and visitors.

Jason Cleckler is the CEO of Middle Park Health in Grand County. Rich Cimino is the District 1 county commissioner representing Grand County, and the new executive director of Peak Health Alliance.