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A wild patch of thistle is showing some color along the Rocky Mountain Ditch in Lakewood on July 8, 2022. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Donna Lynne wears her love for Colorado on her sleeve — quite literally. During her run for governor in 2018, she got a tattoo on her left shoulder reading, “Fight for Colorado.”

That’s why it was a bit of a surprise when Lynne, who served as lieutenant governor and state chief operating officer under John Hickenlooper and who was a longtime Kaiser Permanente executive in the state, left Colorado after that gubernatorial bid for a job at Columbia University in New York. 

But Lynne is back in Colorado, having recently been named the CEO of Denver Health, the oldest hospital in the state and also its most prominent safety net provider.

We sat down (virtually) with Lynne for a Q&A on why she’s back, what challenges Denver Health is facing and how she hopes to address them. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

The Colorado Sun: Let’s start with an easy one. Why did you decide to come back to Colorado?

Donna Lynne: Well, I think it really was the opportunity to work at Denver Health, which I firmly believe in their mission, vision and values. The easy way to sum that up is that everybody should be able to have access to health care, regardless of their ability to pay, regardless of their employment status, or lack of employment status, and national origin. And so I think I really resonate with that mission. It also doesn’t hurt that Colorado has much better weather than the East Coast. And mountains!

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Sun: It’s an election year, and turnover in political leadership can sometimes lead to uncertainty around Medicaid, which plays a large role in your payer mix. How are you planning for the future with that in mind?

A headshot of Donna Lynne
Donna Lynne was named the new CEO of Denver Health in June 2022. (Provided by Denver Health)

Lynne: The Medicaid population — I think it’s no surprise to you, we don’t get paid for the true cost of that population. We also don’t get paid for the cost of what we call uncompensated care, so care that is provided to people who don’t qualify for Medicaid.

Denver Health has been around for 162 years; we’ve provided care to people without insurance for a very long time. It’s becoming more and more of a challenge. The amount of uncompensated care that Denver Health had in this past year was about $170 million. So that’s money that we don’t get from Medicaid, Medicare, employers or the city or even the state. But as I said, those people need health care.

Sun: Are you worried that political support for Medicaid could diminish depending on the results of the election?

Lynne: I don’t think we’ll see an erosion of support for Medicaid, not Colorado in any event. I think we’ve gotten past that, at least, as I said, in Colorado and other states. The policymakers understand you can’t eliminate this program. We will have a different kind of a crisis if we were to eliminate Medicaid or to substantially reduce the reimbursement.

Sun: Let’s talk about staffing. Lots of health care workers are leaving the profession. Why is that?

Lynne: You’ve seen a lot of fatigue among nurses and physicians, you know, burnout in health care. And we knew some of this workforce challenge was coming because a lot of baby boomers are wanting to retire. But overlaid on top of that is the stress from COVID and, in fact, there’s been a significant increase, I hate to tell you this, of violence and aggression from patients to health care workers. People seem to be snapping a bit faster than they used to.

So one issue is the ability to recruit people for positions that we have vacant.

The sun sets behind the sign atop Denver Health hospital on March 18, 2021. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Sun: How do you plan to deal with that?

Lynne: I think we have to look really closely at what we can do to retain staff. I once heard a great quote: “You don’t leave your job, you leave your boss,” — you know, unless the salary differential is so big. But creating, I think, a really positive environment that recognizes employees and the sacrifices that they make — that this is their career path. Not everybody wants to just stay in the position they might have been hired to.

Those are ways that I think we can build the culture that, frankly, I’ve been so impressed with at Denver Health, which is, “I work here because I care. I work here because I want to support mission vision and the values of Denver Health.” So a lot of my work in the first several months and into next year is really going to be around reinforcing how we recognize that culture and what we can do to pay people a competitive salary.

Sun: Are inflation and supply chain issues impacting Denver Health?

Lynne: Just like you’ve heard about how new cars aren’t available and furniture takes a long time to find, I hate to say this — cars and furniture are important — but they’re not life-essential. You can figure out other ways when you don’t have those supplies. But in a health care setting, if you don’t have the supplies, you’re not able to provide the kind of quality care that you should be. So sometimes you have to look at who’s got the materials and who’s got the supplies and pay more for them. So we are finding inflation in those spaces is creating some challenges for us as well.

Sun: You’ve stepped away from Colorado politics, but while you were in New York, lawmakers here passed a number of major health care-related reforms, things like the Colorado Option health insurance program or policies around trying to control the cost of prescription drugs. How do those policies look to you now from where you sit as the leader of a health system?

Lynne: The more the state takes a role in providing affordable coverage, the better off we are. So I think that is great work. We’ll have to see how much uptake there is. There are people who are eligible for insurance but don’t take it. Maybe they’re young, they want to avoid paying premiums. But the more we can make coverage, broader and less expensive, the better we are as a state, so I applaud the state in those initiatives.

Sun: Last question here: Other than running Denver Health, what are you most looking forward to being back in Colorado?

Lynne: In New York, it would take me about five hours to get to ski at a decent (hill), and decent I’m putting in quotation marks — there’s a lot of ice up north and it’s cold. So I can’t wait to get up into the mountains and be able to ski as much as I would like to.

That’s partly a joke. But the other thing is really there’s so many people in the community that I got to know when I was in Colorado for 14 years. There’s just a wonderful sense of community. When I think about what I’ve missed over the last four years, it is a little bit of the sense of community that I thought was much stronger in Colorado, and I’m just excited to be back and reconnect with an awful lot of really great people.

John Ingold is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a reporter currently specializing in health care coverage. Born and raised in Colorado Springs, John spent 18 years working at The Denver Post. Prior to that, he held internships at the Rocky Ford Daily Gazette, the Colorado Springs...