Moab Regional Hospital [Moab Sun News file photo]

Anticipating a busy tourism season beginning in March, the Moab Regional Hospital is looking to bring in traveling health care professionals to meet the demand for rural services — but where the workers will live long term once they arrive isn’t certain.

Health care workers moving to the Moab area have little in the way of housing, but Moab Regional Hospital is working to change that — the hospital has acquired two condos and a two-unit house to use as a “landing spot” for workers — but first, taxes.

On Tuesday, Feb. 19, Moab Regional Hospital CEO Jen Sadoff spoke on two resolutions in front of the Grand County Council on taxes related to the housing for its medical workers.

One resolution was to approve of property tax exemptions on the properties in 2019, and another resolution in front of council would have given approval for a cancellation of the hospital’s 2018 taxes on the properties. The property tax exemption for 2019 was approved, but the motion to cancel 2018 taxes failed.

Visiting physicians working at the hospital and growing their clinic services are responsible for their own lodging, but the hospital pays for the housing of traveling medical workers. Right now, Sadoff said the hospital is hiring for a traveling lab technician and a radiologist.

Though the hospital provided $5.1 million in uncompensated and charitable care to the community in 2018, Sadoff said, Grand County Council member Curtis Wells remained skeptical during the meeting over the tax measures and asked if the hospital is able to pay its taxes without the county’s exemption and if it is looking to improve its finances.

“I see our hospital … as needing to address housing as part of ensuring our workforce,” Sadoff said. “Right now, it’s not a make-it-or-break-it, but I think it would set an unfortunate precedent to deny an important nonprofit who does have eligibility for property exemption that piece.”

“A concern that I have,” Wells responded, “is what precedent we’re setting because there’s a lot of organizations in the community that have to provide housing. So, without having a list in front of me, the county’s been very supportive of the hospital and you know, through the distribution of the mineral lease monies to the health care special service district … it makes me a little bit uncomfortable, it puts me in the position where it’s like, now everyone who can associate themselves with providing services to the community is entitled to a tax break on property taxes.”

Some of the $5.1 million in uncompensated care was for visitors, but Sadoff said, “It’s primarily care for people who live here.” Laurie Peter, the marketing and communications specialist at the hospital, estimates that around 25 percent of the hospital’s patients are uninsured, under-insured or covered by Medicaid.

According to documents and statements made at the meeting, the hospital had been waiting for a response from the county to a legal review on the tax issue that was never discussed before former Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald left office at the end of 2018.

The tax exemption for Moab Regional Hospital’s two transitional housing residences totals approximately $4,300 for 2019.

Council member Mary McGann said she supports property tax exemption status for the hospital, adding that she think it’s a common operational expense for communities to contribute to the housing, meal services and child care needs of its medical professionals.

“This is not just a problem in Moab, it’s a problem throughout the nation,” McGann said. “It was on PBS that cities are needing to do things to support the medical services in their community.”

Used to house medical professionals when they arrive in Moab during the busy season, Sadoff reiterated that transitional housing is an operational expense for managing services, not an employee bonus for health care workers.

“These units are used for transitional housing for employees when they move into the community and out of the community, and to help to house travelers when they are here during our peak season,” Sadoff told the council. “As you can imagine, I’m sure your volume goes up from spring through fall, so does ours, so we often have to bring in people to cover during that time.”

Housing the traveling health care workers would cost more if the hospital had to put them up in hotel rooms during their stays in Moab. The hospital’s transitional housing reduces the expenses of housing, agreed McGann.

“I see this as supporting our medical services,” McGann said.

“I understand the need to provide housing,” Wells said, adding that he still felt uncomfortable with the measure.

“We have lost candidates because we can’t provide them transitional housing,” Sadoff said.

McGann made a motion to approve the 2019 tax exemption and it was seconded by member Terry Morse.

Adding to the discussion, McGann said, “I think this is very important … by doing this, they’re saving money and in the long run, it’s saving us money as well.”

“I think for any community to remain healthy, it has to have healthy health care — is that enough health?” Morse said, earning smiles and chuckles from others in the room. “From my way of thinking, it’s a small contribution that we can make to show that we back the importance of having health care and a healthy system in the county.”

“I don’t think $4,000 or $5,000 is going to make or break our budget either,” council chair Evan Clapper said. “I think it says a lot. We’re on board as key players in the community and I think taxpayers will agree with that as well.”

Without further discussion, the motion passed 4-2 with Wells and Greg Halliday in opposition. Council member Jaylyn Hawks was not present at the meeting.

The motion to cancel the 2018 property taxes on the hospital’s properties did not pass, despite a recommendation from Grand County Treasurer Chris Kauffman to do so. After a separate discussion on the 2018 taxes, McGann’s motion on that resolution, seconded by Morse, failed with a vote of 3-3, again with opposition from Wells and Halliday, and this time also council member Rory Paxman.

After the meeting, Sadoff said the community has a “very caring and dedicated” group of health care providers who are ready to provide services through the hospital’s urgent care and emergency room as the intensity of tourism and visitation picks back up. Providing property tax exemptions to workers’ transitional housing will keep the local health care system strong, she said.

“Most of the people using this housing are trained health care workers who are in high demand and difficult to recruit, such as lab and radiology technicians, nurses and nurse practitioners,” Sadoff said. “The housing gives them a temporary place to stay while they look for permanent housing. With the housing challenges that Moab is facing, I think that allowing our essential service organizations an exemption on property tax for housing they develop could be an important way to help those organizations develop a viable housing strategy.”

Moab Regional Hospital CEO tells county transitional housing is essential for providing community health care services

“I see our hospital … as needing to address housing as part of ensuring our workforce.”