'It's going to break Denver Health': CEO speaks out on uncompensated migrant care

Denver Health "is at a critical, critical point," according to its CEO, Donna Lynne, DrPH. 

The health system is overwhelmed with care costs for uninsured patients, particularly migrants — 36,000 of whom have arrived in Denver since December 2022, according to The Denver Post

"Where do you think the migrants are getting care? They are getting care at Denver Health," Dr. Lynne said at a Jan. 9 finance and governance committee meeting. Her remarks were reported by CBS Colorado on Jan. 12. 

"While I have tremendous compassion for what's going on, it's heartbreaking," Dr. Lynne continued. "It's going to break Denver Health in a way that we didn't even anticipate."

Denver Health has treated more than 8,000 migrants who lack legal documentation in the past year, totaling about 20,000 visits, according to Steven Federico, MD, a pediatrician at the health system. 

The majority of these patients are coming from Venezuela and arrive needing treatment for chronic and communicable diseases after making the difficult journey. 

Eric Lavonas, MD, an emergency physician at Denver Health, expects the situation to worsen as subzero temperatures sweep across Colorado, exposing unhoused, uninsured populations to frostbite and hypothermia. 

In 2020, the health system had about $60 million in uncompensated care costs. Last year, costs sprung to $136 million, a quarter of which came from caring for non-Denver residents. 

Due to the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, Denver Health cannot turn patients away from the emergency room and has resorted to other cost-cutting measures. The system closed 15 of its 78 inpatient beds for substance misuse and mental health treatment and did away with planned salary increases. 

Denver Health lost $35 million in 2022, and 2023 could have been worse had the system not received some outside help, according to the Post. The state, Kaiser Permanente Colorado and private donors infused a collective $20 million into the health system, which ended the year $2 million in the red. It was the first year that Denver Health received some state funding outside of Medicaid. 

"I suspect that no other hospital in the state of Colorado can say that [they have cared for so many migrants] and there has been no reimbursement for that and quite frankly it is an ongoing conversation with the city, with the state and with the federal government," Dr. Lynne said.

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