Aspen Valley Hospital expansion approved

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times

Aspen Valley Hospital officials won City Council approval Monday to continue with their controversial expansion project, but they had to promise to improve the landscaping buffer around the hospital campus and shield rooftop mechanical equipment in order to mask the facility’s size.

The vote was 5-0 on final approval to allow the hospital to move forward with the third and fourth phases, representing an additional 83,000 square feet, of the four-phase project. Minutes before the 10:30 p.m. decision, however, the discussion appeared to be bogging down over whether the council could set another condition: requiring the hospital to lease a minimum of 50 percent of its private medical-office space to physicians who accept Medicare insurance. Many Aspen physicians don’t.

Mayor Mick Ireland, who steps down from office on June 10 after three terms, wanted the Medicare stipulation after hearing local resident Tom Marshall voice the concern during the public-comment portion of the discussion. Ireland, 63, noted that like Marshall, he too is aging and doesn’t want to be forced to seek medical attention downvalley under a scenario in which doctors affiliated with Aspen’s hospital won’t accept government-sponsored health insurance.

Hospital officials said they can’t legally require that as a lease condition, but they agreed to an “aspirational” goal of hiring doctors who accept Medicare following a suggestion by Councilman Torre. The promises that they would strive to encourage their doctors to accept the public insurance was good enough for the council, which then voted unanimously in support of the ordinance and all three amendments.

Many of the council’s concerns appeared to be grounded in what already has been built in the first two phases, especially Phase 2, which involved the new parking garage and an addition to the main building. Hospital officials said that during the hiatus in public meetings on the issue over the past month, they were able to come up with some changes to the project designed to satisfy aesthetic concerns voiced by many in the community, especially neighbors of the Meadowood area.

During the meeting, Ireland and Councilman Steve Skadron raised several questions about not only the project but previous statements from hospital officials. Ireland, in particular, harped on an early-April comment by the hospital’s finance director that the additional 83,000 square feet would require only one or two additional employees to service the space.

“I just feel that a patently incredible statement was made to me,” Ireland said. “That does not compute.”

He added that it was “borderline offensive” that a hospital official would even suggest that such a large amount of space would lead to only one or two hires.

Hospital CEO Dave Ressler apologized on behalf of the hospital and said the finance director’s intention was not to mislead but merely to drive home the point that the number of additional hires was inconsequential to the overall operating costs of the facility.

Skadron compared the last four months of wrangling over the project to previous development requests in which the council has had to continually push for concessions to ensure that a project is more to the community’s liking.

“And here we are again,” he said, being placed in a difficult position when the developer could have started the process with a plan that was acceptable to the council and the community.

He said it seemed the hospital scrambled at the last minute to improve the landscaping buffer around the campus in order to win council support.

That comparison, however, drew a sharp response from a hospital board member, Dr. Mindy Nagle.

“This is not (just another commercial project),” she said. “This is a hospital that’s addressing specific needs. I continue to be offended that we are put into that category.”

Nagle said the vast majority of the community supports the project and that the hospital’s request shouldn’t be likened to a hotel or time-share application.

During the meeting, Ressler and other hospital officials stressed the cramped conditions of the 35-year-old facility. About 35 members of the audience, many of them hospital employees, clapped after the final vote.