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Candidates detail their AVH cure

Aspen Times writer

By Eben Harrell

Aspen Times Staff Writer

The four candidates running for two available seats on the Aspen Valley Hospital board of directors laid out their platforms and commented on the controversy surrounding the institution in a forum discussion last night.

In front of approximately 25 audience members at Paepcke Auditorium, the candidates addressed various issues, including the hospital’s current financial crisis, its relationship with Aspen doctors and its possible affiliation with a major New York orthopedic center.

AVH emergency physician and candidate Greg Balko led off the discussion. He said his intimate involvement with AVH caretakers, coupled with his skills as a doctor, would allow him to help the hospital out of its crisis.

“I am an ER doctor. In my job, I need to make quick decisions and act decisively and in the patient’s interest,” he said. “That’s what the board needs right now.”

Richard Jacobs said his experience as a physician, hospital administrator and businessman makes him an ideal candidate. Asked if it might be detrimental to have two physicians on the board, he responded, “Not if one also has an MBA, it won’t.”

Longtime Aspen internist Barry Mink said he is running a grass-roots campaign, working off the reputation he has built during 29 years in Aspen.

“Most people in the community either know me or know of me,” he said. “I’ve spent my whole professional career at AVH. … I’m not a financial guy, but I know what [the hospital] needs to offer excellent patient care.”

Incumbent Bob D’Alessio said continuity is needed as AVH tackles long-neglected financial problems.

“Several times [since the last election] board members have come to me to ask about a decision in the past. Some decisions were good, some bad. It was important that I was there, I know what happened,” he said.

The candidates agreed on many aspects regarding the hospital’s financial woes. Officials recently announced that they were forced to write off $11 million in uncollected bills.

All four agreed that finding a new, effective CEO should be the board’s main priority. They also consented that the recent firing of 34 employees was necessary but was handled poorly, and that cutting local doctor subsidies was another crucial, albeit difficult, step in pulling the facility out of debt.

Candidates disagreed on the value of AVH’s potential affiliation with the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS), a major center for joint-replacement surgery in New York City. In February, The Aspen Times revealed that hospital officials had begun negotiations in an attempt to brand its facility with the HSS name, in the hope of turning AVH into a “destination hospital.”

Jacobs and D’Alessio agreed that such an affiliation was “forward-looking” and integral to increasing revenue.

Balko and Mink expressed skepticism. Balko agreed that AVH needs to promote orthopedics in the valley, but said HSS’s expertise in joint surgery was not the answer. He said AVH should focus more on sports medicine surgery instead.

Mink expressed indignation over the move and said it was “crazy” that the current board had begun negotiations without intense consultation with the hospital’s medical staff.

Perhaps the most pointed moment of the forum came during the discussion of AVH’s renegotiation of contracts with local physicians. Jacobs pointed out that Mink’s contract is currently under negotiation and asked whether Mink’s personal involvement compromised his impartiality.

“If issues that affected me personally came up while I was on the board, I would of course recuse myself,” Mink replied.

D’Alessio, too, answered a pointed question about whether he and other former board members ignored warnings about impending financial problems at AVH, placing too much trust in former management’s claims of financial health. He said it was not the board’s responsibility to micromanage but only to oversee the hospital’s administration.

Asked if he would look past management’s claims of financial well-being if warnings arose in the future, D’Alessio answered, “Yes, I’m very sensitive to that now.”

Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com


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