A buffer for Olathe’s million-dollar views

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The unofficial start of summer gives us that urgent Colorado wanderlust, to hit the road and see every beautiful inch of this state under bluebird skies.

So one-half of The Temperature’s enormous staff roster, me to be exact, jumped in the SUV and headed up to Rocky Mountain National Park to check on campground reconstruction and a major traffic overhaul through downtown Estes Park’s throttled streets. More about that next week, but the beautiful day trip merely whetted our appetite for more open vistas, and made us pull a press release on the Uncompahgre Valley out of the slush pile.

So we’re bringing some rare good news this week, on the preservation of some of those hundred-mile views around Montrose. We hope you bookmarked Parker Yamasaki’s “8 Quirky Places” piece if you need more road trip ideas. Whether you’re launching your adventure from Fort Collins or Craig or Lakewood, let us know what your summer wish list is for Colorado views.

On to the news …

The Anderson farm near Olathe will now be preserved as open space. (Colorado West Land Trust)

While government agencies make splashy land deals to preserve open space at high profile sites like Sweetwater Lake or Clear Creek Canyon, nonprofits across Colorado are quietly working with farmers on other ways to extend historic agricultural use and pristine views. Each new deal also helps dilute the bad taste left over from questionable state tax credits for easements in the early 2000s, and bolsters support for recent tweaks and expansions of the state program.

The Anderson family of Olathe and the Colorado West Land Trust announced this week that the fourth-generation farmers will take tax credits to apply conservation easements on 345 acres of farmland, habitat and accompanying water rights. Steve Anderson says the deal will allow his family to stay on the land while fighting off housing subdivisions he sees creeping across the Uncompahgre Valley’s fertile fields.

“In the Uncompahgre Valley and the Grand Valley, both the land and the water are at risk in a way that we’ve never seen before,” said Nick Jacobson, western Colorado conservation specialist with the land trust. “In terms of the development pressure being put on these landscapes, both in the landscapes themselves and from external forces” such as Western water needs. “So we want food and fiber to continue to be produced in these agricultural valleys in Colorado. We need protection now.”

The Uncompahgre produces everything from pumpkins to alfalfa to pinto beans and famous Olathe sweet corn, Jacobson said.

“In order for ag to have a future here, there needs to be a critical mass of farmland. If you don’t have that critical mass, you also can’t support the services that are needed for an agricultural community,” Jacobson said. “This is the first deal we’ve done in the valley in a while, and the key term is that the property will be held together in one piece forever. It won’t be a subdivision, and no development on the property outside of what’s already there, and then it’ll continue to be farmed.”

The easement also includes language to encourage including the farm’s water rights in a growing number of Colorado River preservation programs that pay farmers to keep their water in the streams for up to three out of 10 years, Jacobson said. The land trust thinks it’s important to participate in broad efforts to preserve Colorado River water amid climate change that threatens supplies for 40 million Westerners who depend on the river.

Jacobson said the deal for the Anderson farm should also spotlight reauthorization of Colorado’s easement tax credits that added another $5 million annually to the available pool. The state now has one of the most “robust” and well-thought easement programs in the nation, he said.

The tax credits are “different from what it looked like in the 2000s, when some of the shadier deals were occurring,” Jacobson said. “And so I think that landowners have the utmost confidence in the program at this point, which allows us to get our work done effectively,” and the public can be confident that this land is worth preserving, he said.

Ambulances sit parked outside Denver Health on March 18, 2021. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The nerdiest, highest-stakes Colorado health care policy fight that you’ve never heard about may have reached a truce — but we won’t know for sure until next week.

The fight has to do with the hospital provider fee, known formally as the Colorado Healthcare Affordability and Sustainability Enterprise fee, or the CHASE fee. And … we can tell that you’re bored already. Hang with us!

The strategy here is like something from a very low-grossing “Oceans” movie: Using all sorts of complicated math and methodologies, the state collects a fee from hospitals and then, using even more complicated math and methodologies, the state leverages that money into matching funds from the federal government, after which the state redistributes the combined sum back to hospitals, using — you guessed it — more complicated math and methodologies.

If the overview doesn’t entice you, maybe the numbers will. Last fiscal year, hospitals paid more than $1.2 billion into the CHASE program. But they got back nearly $1.7 billion. The maneuver — totally legal and sanctioned by the federal government — netted hospitals in total nearly half a billion dollars.

But is the state leaving even more money on the table? That brings us to the recent fight.

This system is part of the federal government’s overall framework for paying for Medicaid, the joint state and federal program to provide health coverage to those who are disabled or low-income.

Medicaid payments often fall short of what it costs doctors and hospitals to provide care. So the feds cooked up this system for providing “supplemental payments” to hospitals. Colorado typically redistributes the extra money based on how Medicaid-heavy a hospital’s patient load is.

The entire system, though, is bound by what is known as an upper payment limit — the maximum amount the feds are willing to pay to help fund a state’s Medicaid program. And to figure out how much extra money the state can draw down from the feds, Colorado has to first estimate what its upper payment limit is.

In running these calculations, Colorado has historically built in a cushion, pulling down only about 97% of what the upper payment limit allows. This is done “to reduce risk of recoupment of federal funds,” a spokesperson for the state Department of Health Care Policy and Financing wrote in an email. In other words, the state says it doesn’t want an accounting oopsie to result in having to pay money back.

But hospitals say this is nonsense — the federal government signs off on the state’s calculations before sending the cash. So they say there’s no reason not to take the full amount. Doing so would net hospitals statewide an extra $50 million a year, something that would come in handy when many are struggling financially.

“The state has not been leveraging the full amount of available federal funding,” said Tom Rennell, the Colorado Hospital Association’s senior vice president for financial policy and data analytics.

Still with us? You’re doing great!

Now, you might think this is just a fight about math. But the hospital association’s proposal touched off all sorts of suspicion about what they were up to.

Donna Lynne, the CEO of Denver Health, raised concerns that messing with the calculations could hurt her hospital, which already receives close to the maximum amount it can in supplemental payments. Lynne wrote in a letter to the state that the change may “increase the fees our health system provides to the CHASE fee while giving us no financial benefit.”

“Adequate exploration of the impact on all hospitals should precede any decision-making,” she wrote.

Meanwhile, Mannat Singh, the executive director of the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative, criticized how the hospital association introduced the idea. Singh sits on a board that oversees the CHASE program, and she said the hospital association appears to have spent a month or more negotiating with the state privately before taking their proposal public.

“If they’re discussing CHASE business outside of the public accountability of the CHASE meetings, that is something that is a flag for us,” she said.

Amid the uproar, the CHASE board, which also includes representatives from hospitals and the hospital association, postponed a meeting earlier this spring. That meeting is now scheduled for Monday — and it appears that the state will offer a compromise.

In an email Nancy Dolson, HCPF’s director of special financing, sent to CHASE board members, she proposed to maintain the status quo for the time being — keeping the usual 3% cushion in the numbers. But, if all goes well with a pending federal review of Colorado’s program, she said the state will support increasing its funding to 99.25% of the upper payment limit, enough to net tens of millions of new dollars for hospitals.

The meeting is scheduled for June 3 at 1 p.m. More information, including the link to watch, is available on the CHASE website.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, screenshot of daily updates

This week marked another early entry in Colorado’s expanding summer ozone season, with the Denver metro area getting an ozone action alert lasting through Wednesday afternoon. So we’ll take this opportunity to show you where to get explanations of the alerts, and how to sign up to get them in your email so you can take timely action if you want to.

The state health department issues ozone and other air pollutant forecasts every day, and when it appears one of the potentially toxic substances will pass health thresholds, the emails contain an alert. High levels of ozone can cause respiratory and heart problems in adults, and young children with still-developing lungs are especially vulnerable. Many public health specialists tell people to consider limiting their outdoor exercise and using air conditioning instead of opening windows on high ozone days. You can sign up for different forms of the daily emails here.

The forecasts on the state website, along with explanations of the pollution warning levels and links to more resources, can be found here.

Take ozone seriously — the health impacts are real. Many world health scientists want U.S. ozone restrictions to be even lower than the levels that are already forcing changes in Colorado.

Finished? Your reward is to walk outside. We suggest continuing right to your bike or car and getting Out There. The time is ripe. And we’ve got just the state for trying it.


— Michael & John

Notice something wrong? The Colorado Sun has an ethical responsibility to fix all factual errors. Request a correction by emailing [email protected].

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