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Valley Voices Column by Will Cook

This article was printed in the Vail Daily Valley Voices Column May 2019

While my wife and I had visited the Eagle River Valley for many years, we didn’t fully appreciate what it means to be a member of this community until we moved here full-time in January. Not only have we experienced firsthand the hospitality and warmth of the locals, we now have a greater appreciation for how the community comes together to solve problems. Since becoming the president and CEO at Vail Health, I’ve identified two crises that must be tackled immediately. One is behavioral health, and the second is access to affordable healthcare. I will address the cost of care and share our ideas for making it more affordable in the coming months. However, given the severity of the behavioral health crisis and the fact that we are losing lives—17 people in the last year, including a 13-year-old—this has become my number one priority. Not only do I feel a deep obligation as the CEO of the area’s largest healthcare system; but as the father of two young daughters and someone who lives here, I am personally committed to making big changes.

When I arrived at Vail Health and learned about the incredible work of public and private agencies and individuals on this issue—healthcare providers, Eagle County, law enforcement agencies, the school district and family members—I was inspired. This collaboration and the urgency around it affirm that we can’t—and shouldn’t—tolerate the status quo and we have to act quickly. This is not a problem any one person, one organization or one group can overcome. We must work together. However, our community leaders have also aptly recognized that to make significant progress, one organization needed to take the lead.

When Vail Health’s volunteer Board of Directors was presented with this dilemma, they rolled up their sleeves to support the formation of a new nonprofit, Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, to save lives and promote the well-being of our residents. Vail Health’s $60 million commitment will truly make a transformative impact. The dollars will be allocated as follows over the next 10 years:

  • $30 million for system priorities, including more psychiatrists and therapists for the valley
  • $12 million to build a Crisis Stabilization Unit with 24/7 walk-in and social detox capabilities
  •  $11 million for in-kind support (administrative, fiscal, IT, marketing, HR, philanthropy)
  •  $7 million for staffing and operations of the new nonprofit

As wonderful as this investment is, these funds alone are not enough to fulfill the vision of Eagle Valley Behavioral Health. We will need an estimated $120 to $218 million as we create a path to excellence over the next 10 years. Just as we’ve collaborated with community leaders across the county to get this far, we will continue to work together to raise additional money. There will be opportunities for everyone in the community to contribute in a meaningful way.

Right now, we are doing the hard work of establishing a new nonprofit. The goal is to hire a qualified executive director for Eagle Valley Behavioral Health in the coming months. From there, staff roles will be filled, the Board of Directors will be seated and an Advisory Council will be formed. From September to December, funding requests will be received to determine priorities and allocate dollars.

I am hopeful, and you should be too. We cannot solve the behavioral health crisis overnight, and the work we have in front of us will not be easy. There is no roadmap for how this should be done, but we will go the way with compassion, collaboration and determination.

This crisis is hurting our community, and we are not alone. An estimated 382,000 Coloradans said they needed treatment for mental health but couldn’t access it. Another 67,000 reported needing substance abuse treatment. Governor Jared Polis recently visited Eagle County to meet some of the leaders in our initiative and celebrate the great work being done. His office has formed a behavioral health taskforce to tackle the issue statewide. We are very grateful for the Governor’s leadership and commitment to addressing this problem, and I am optimistic that the Eagle River Valley’s work will become an example for other organizations in our state and mountain communities across the country that have been labeled part of the “suicide belt.”

Everyone deserves to be happy, but there are always obstacles to overcome. We must remember that mental health is part of our overall health, and just like we take care of our physical bodies, we must also nurture our minds. If you, or someone you love, are experiencing a crisis, you are not alone. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak to someone confidentially, 24/7. Until a new website is established for Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, I encourage you to visit for a resource directory of behavioral health services and updates on our progress. And, please, have hope because the future is bright.

Will Cook
President & CEO, Vail Health

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