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After Fire And Floods, Colo. Town Now Faces A Hospital Crisis


We return now to Estes Park, Colorado, a small, tourism-dependent community that sits right next to Rocky Mountain National Park. Earlier this year, the roads in Estes Park were wiped out by massive floods, and the government shutdown meant no one could visit Rocky Mountain National Park, so tourists weren't coming through to see the fall colors. But it's not just the tourism industry that took a hit. Estes Park's small but important hospital has also been hurting. Eric Whitney checks in to see how the hospital is faring.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Any more chest pain, shortness of breath since you've...


ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: Routine pacemaker checks like this one are back on track at Estes Park Medical Center now that cardiac doctors and nurses no longer have to face a three-and-a-half-hour one-way drive from the valley below. It's the kind of drive that patients like 80-year-old Beverly Henderson would have a hard time doing themselves if the doctors and nurses couldn't come to them.

BEVERLY HENDERSON: I'm an old lady. (Laughing) I hardly ever go to the valley, mostly because I'd probably get lost in all the roundabouts at the medical facility there.

WHITNEY: Patients like Henderson are the reason the head doctor at Estes Park's hospital, Frank Koschnitzke, is glad it can still be there for its patients. But he says it isn't easy. Like the rest of the town, the hospital depends on a certain level of tourist traffic to pay its bills, and Estes Park's tourism economy has been pretty well punished lately. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The doctor's name is MARTIN Koschnitzke, not Frank.]

DR. MARTIN KOSCHNITZKE: We took a hit from last summer, the fires, and a lot of people chose not to travel here. We were just starting to rebound, and then the flood hit. And then the government, you know, shuts down and we lose, you know, the national park and the road. And it's one thing to be down. It's another to get kicked several times when you are down, and that's how we felt.

WHITNEY: So Koschnitzke is very happy that the nearest big hospital, Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland in the valley below, is willing to fly some of its specialists in to keep seeing their regular patients. Cardiologist Chad Stoltz is one of them. The helicopter ride takes him directly over the narrow canyon he used to drive up. Now it's crawling with yellow bulldozers, backhoes and road graders, furiously trying to fix the washed-out road before winter snows hit. Stoltz appreciates the new perspective from the air.

DR. CHAD STOLTZ: I'm staring in the river, and to see it from above is just wonderful. And I do believe I found a couple more fishing holes that I missed before, so...

WHITNEY: It's not all fun and games. Stoltz says his new flying commute allows him to both maintain continuity with his regular Estes Park patients, and still be able to be on call down in the valley in the evenings. But the flights aren't cheap.

RUSSELL J. WOOLLEY: It does seem very expensive. This decision wasn't made lightly.

WHITNEY: Russ Woolley, a vice-president at the hospital in Loveland, says the helicopter costs about $5,000 a week. His hospital is eating that whole cost. Everyone is hoping that road crews will be able to restore one of the highway routes back into Estes Park by December 1st as projected.

WOOLLEY: This is a temporary measure. The physicians know that. The community knows that. It certainly isn't something we can sustain over the long term.

WHITNEY: In the meantime, Estes Park's hospital is struggling to maintain 100 percent of its services when a lack of tourists means patient volume is still down sharply. The 25-bed hospital lost about $700,000 in September alone. Estes Park Hospital's Frank [MARTIN] Koschnitzke doesn't have complete numbers for October yet, but says expenses are still higher than normal and cash-generating emergency room visits remain down about five percent.

KOSCHNITZKE: That's a big deal for a small institution. We're still providing some housing, some transportation and some meals for a few employees who are still commuting. And that will probably continue until they get at least one of the highways reopened.

WHITNEY: So far, the weather has held, and road crews have been able to make good progress rebuilding the highways to Estes Park. That's going to need to remain true for at least another month for the hospital to get its revenues and expenses back to normal. For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney.

CORNISH: This story is part of a collaboration between NPR and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
We identified the head doctor at Estes Park's hospital as Frank Koschnitzke. His name is Martin Koschnitzke.
Eric Whitney