By Larry McEvoy

Memorial Health System is Colorado Springs’ largest employer outside the military. It generated $15 million in earnings last year, and it employs more than 4,000 people with some of the region’s best-paying jobs.

But Memorial’s dollars and jobs today are just a part of real value and unrecognized growth ahead.

Imagine if Memorial could create hundreds of new jobs, drive down medical insurance costs for small businesses, and create the kind of quality of care that would draw people here from across Colorado and beyond.

It’s possible — likely, in fact — with your help.

This year a city-appointed commission has been evaluating various ownership models for Memorial. The process has, understandably, produced a few eye rolls after decades of tired debate about selling Memorial or keeping it.

This time, though, things are different. There is another option on the table, and it’s one that enables Memorial to reach a new level of excellence: a stand-alone, community-based nonprofit.

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Such a model frees up Memorial to be an even stronger economic engine. It takes politics out of patient care, and it safeguards Memorial against the tumultuous changes in health care. It ends the stale “sell Memorial” debate by eliminating taxpayer risk, and yet it also marks a new beginning. It is an opportunity to create local jobs, attract new businesses and bolster the local economy, all without handing over control to a board in another city or state.

Poudre Valley Health System, in Fort Collins, converted from a county health system to a stand-alone nonprofit in 1994. The result: It grew from a $100 million a year business to $1.2 billion a year in just a decade. It earned a quality award only nine health systems have ever attained. It draws patients and families from Wyoming, Nebraska and Denver.

Does anyone else in town have an idea to build an economic engine like this at no cost and no risk to the community?

Historically, staying the same has been the safe thing to do.

Today, the opposite is true. Memorial, as it is structured today, is ill-prepared for health care reform, payment bundling, and the unprecedented volatility of the health care industry. Any added burdens associated with governmental ownership are structural disadvantages at a time when even minor hiccups can derail health systems.

By contrast, the community-based nonprofit provides us with the agility to drive up quality, lower costs and thrive in this new world. All while continuing to care for everyone, regardless of their ability to pay. All while providing poorly reimbursed services such as caring for the sickest children in southern Colorado or helping soldiers with traumatic brain injuries. All while posing no risk to taxpayers.

Look around the country and you’ll see how top-tier health systems drive new businesses and jobs to their communities, and how they make it easier for existing businesses to recruit talented workers. And they do it cheaper.

As the community explores what it wants out of Memorial Health System, it shouldn’t settle for the same performance, strong as it may be. It should look at what it can do, what it must do.

Colorado Springs won’t get this opportunity again. If this discussion is put on hold and comes again a few years later, it may not be on our terms. Let’s act from a position of strength, not weakness. Let’s define highest quality health care for generations to come.

Memorial as a community nonprofit will be local, nimble, accessible, and risk-free to the taxpayer.

McEvoy is chief executive officer of Memorial Health System.