How this small town amid Colorado’s ’empty land’ became a go-to place for bad knees and hips
Meeker lies roughly halfway between Denver and Salt Lake City in what one writer described as “some of the emptiest land in Colorado.”
So what has happened that the town of 2,300 can claim to be a destination for medical tourism? That was the description used in the announcement of a $600,000 state grant to the Pioneers Medical Center. The money comes from allocations for Colorado’s Just Transition.
Meeker has a richly deserved reputation as a hunting mecca. In October and November, the public lands are thick with orange vests worn by hunters in search of elk, deer, and other wildlife. It famously drew none other than Theodore Roosevelt in 1901 when he was vice president. Mountain lions were prey, and he shot several.
At other times, Meeker has been a hotbed of exploration for fossil fuels. It is near the epicenter for the nation’s best oil shale deposits, although nothing appreciable has ever come of that over the decades. More real was the natural gas boom focused on Piceance Creek of 15 years ago. Prices of $14.50 justified the deep drilling to reach the deposits buried at great depths. Then the fracking revolution made gas from other fields cheaper to access.
Meanwhile, the ColoWyo Mine on the border of Rio Blanco and Moffat counties has continued to deliver tax revenues and jobs. The coal goes to the Craig Generating Station.
Nancy Lofholm, in a piece for Colorado Sun in late 2022, told the fascinating story of how Meeker became an unlikely mecca for what some call medical tourism. The central figure is Dr. Kevin Borchard, who arrived in Meeker as a toddler when his family decided to move there from Boulder. After medical school at the University of Colorado, a stint as an Air Force doctor, a fellowship in Boston in adult reconstructive surgery under some of the top surgeons in the country, he returned to northwest Colorado. There, he practiced for a couple of years in Craig, located 45 miles to the north, before deciding he wanted to practice full time “in the place that feels like his hometown.” That was in 2015.
His reputation as a top-notch orthopedic surgeon drew sufficient patients that in 2020 the hospital added an 11,000 square-foot specialty orthopedic clinic and then, in 2022, after Borchard had drawn five other physicians to the practice, another 4,000 square-foot addition.
In a county economic update in 2022, reported Lofholm, Rio Blanco County had 452 employees in the mining sector (that would include oil and gas) and 387 in the health sector. Around 200 were employed at the hospital.
Liz Sellers, the hospital’s chief executive officer, says that an average 60% of orthopedic patients since 2020 have come from outside Meeker.
“Given the decline of energy jobs, Meeker’s Just Transition strategy has shifted its focus toward travel, tourism, and medical tourism as new sources of income,” said Liz Sellers, chief executive officer of Pioneers Medical.
“With the hospital’s three-year expansion plan, we aim to create jobs and make a positive economic impact for the future, establishing Meeker as the go-to destination for orthopedic specialty care,” she said.
For Lofholm’s story, see “How Meeker, a small hunter’s heaven, became a medical destination.”
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