By Jamie Leary

LEADVILLE, Colo. (CBS4) – As many rural hospitals struggle to find footing in the midst of the pandemic, St. Vincent Health in Leadville is making an incredible comeback.

“St. Vincent literally hit a point where there was two week’s worth of funding left in the operation budget,” Brett Antczak, CEO St. Vincent Health.

Nearly 7 years ago it was on the brink of bankruptcy and subsequent closure, but this last month it celebrated the opening of a brand new facility. Earlier this week, CBS4 was able to take a tour to find out how out how operations were going.

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“For years we have really been missing out on full spectrum of specialty care and now we’re able to bring back things like dermatology, ophthalmology for things like cataract surgery,” Antczak said. “Endoscopes, colonoscopes which are great screening tools just to keep people healthy.”

St. Vincent will also be bringing back home health and hospice in the next few months, which Antczak says the community needs but hasn’t had.

The biggest change is likely to the emergency care. There’s a new heated heli pad, trauma rooms double the size of those in the old facility, and the rooms for in patient care resemble a comfortable hotel.

“We’ve done upgraded linens, high thread count sheets, nicer fleece blankets fluffier pillows.”

It’s what the sprawled, but growing population of Lake County needs but currently it’s not typical for a rural community.

While none of Colorado’s rural hospitals have had to fully shut down, it’s been tough.

According to the Colorado Rural Health Center, CEO turnover is at an all-time high in rural hospitals, which creates instability in leadership. In addition, 22 rural Colorado hospitals were operating in the red before the pandemic hit, since financial issues among rural hospitals have been exacerbated. These factors combined with staffing shortages has created a dire situation when it comes to rural health care.

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“Rural hospitals and clinics were operating on razor thin margins before this pandemic. The effects of COVID-19 on the bottom lines of our health care facilities has been concerning, to say the least,” said Michelle Mills, CEO of the Colorado Rural Health Center.

St. Vincent Health isn’t completely immune to the issues other rural hospitals face. While it managed to come back from a financial crisis, the pandemic made opening a challenge.

“We had several delays because of supply chain issues from a financial standpoint, we thought it was better for us to use our operation budget to pay for our equipment to pay for our furniture so we’re not financing those pieces and we are very grateful for our partners with the USDA and Colliers bank who helped to finance,” said Antczak.

The 26,500 square-foot facility was funded through a $17 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and $4 million in private lending. It also received a $535,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs.

In addition to some delayed construction, the “micro-hospital” has also had some staffing issues. Most have nothing to do with the vaccine mandate — nurses have simply left for other jobs. In general for rural hospitals, recruiting and retainment can be difficult.

“With our nursing teams and with our frontline staff, we see the same issues here as well,” he said.

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There are 130 employees currently working at St. Vincent, but the hospital still needs to fill 25 positions, mostly related to patient access and nursing.

“We’ve been working over the last year to really increase our benefits and what we are able to do for folks. One of the big pieces is we are really encouraging folks to become better educated — if you’re working with us here at St. Vincent, we want you to grow personally and professionally and so we’re trying to provide some funding and additional opportunities,” said Antczak.

Despite the staffing issues, St. Vincent continues to work on expanding services for its community.

“Recently, Dr. Lisa Zwerdlinger donated her practice, formerly known as Rocky Mountain Family Practice, to St. Vincent and the community and with that collaboration and merger we have opened up our new St. Vincent Family Health Center and we actually have two new physicians that will be joining us in the next couple of weeks. That will add to our strength here.”

Jamie Leary