Steamboat’s Sue Birch continues quest to improve U.S. health care with new role |

Steamboat’s Sue Birch continues quest to improve U.S. health care with new role

In January, Sue Birch will begin serving Washington Governor Jay Inslee as his director of health. This photo was taken in 2010 when Birch, then CEO of the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, was tapped as one of 16 statewide co-chairs for the Gov.-elect John Hickenlooper transition team.
Matt Stensland

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Part-time Steamboat Springs resident Sue Birch will be changing her workplace in 2018 but not her belief that she can improve the U.S. healthcare system.

“I’m gong to the frontline of healthcare transformation,” Birch said, “I’m changing jobs come Jan. 1, but until then, I will be at my home in Steamboat.”

Since taking the job as executive director of Colorado’s Department of Health Care Policy and Financing in 2011, Birch’s time in Steamboat has been limited to weekends. She was a key member of Governor John Hickenlooper’s Cabinet, overseeing the state’s Medicaid program. 

Before joining state government, Birch served as chief executive officer of the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association from 1994 to 2011.

Next year, she will head to Washington state to take a position as Governor Jay Inslee’s health care director.

“The Hickenlooper administration is term limited, and we are all wanting to carry on the great progress and work that we have done,” Birch said. “I think it is really important that all the gains that we have made nationally continue on, and I was humbled that Governor Inslee’s team reached out and asked me to consider joining their team. They have some really progressive work going on, and I think it will bode well. All the front runners, which Colorado is one of, need to continue on to make health care and health services the fabric of our lives in perpetuity.”

During her tenure with the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, Birch’s team worked to expand coverage to more low-income Coloradans while focusing on containing costs and improving service delivery. The uninsured rate decreased from 15.8 percent in 2011 to 6.5 percent this year. A large part of reducing the number of people who are uninsured had to do with implementing the Affordable Care Act, Birch said.

“Colorado has made the most significant health policy modernizations with the expansion of Medicaid, the number of uninsured people in the state has been cut in half, and we are one of the top coverage states in the country,” Birch said. 

She said the state has also helped modernize services for people with intellectual and developmentally disabilities, and with the help of the Department of Public Health and Environment, the teen pregnancy rate in Colorado has been cut in half and the number of abortions has been reduced by 38 percent.

“Because our federal partners are wanting to push more back to the states, I’m not in fear that any of the great work that has been done by Governor Hickenlooper will evaporate,” she said. “Some of this work will just march on because it is saving us money, it is saving society money and it is the right thing to do.”

Birch does think Colorado and the nation will continue to face challenges in the coming years but nothing that can’t be overcome.

“We need diverse voices, and we need people willing to step up and stay involved,” Birch said. “At this moment in time, I think people have to be very careful about really understanding the facts and making rational decisions. I think it is very important that people try to have a balanced perspective and to hold the media accountable for presenting both sides of the story.”

Birch said she never dreamed she would find herself in the political arena but added it’s been a rewarding experience that she’s expecting will continue when she moves to the Pacific Northwest in January.

“I never in my wildest dreams looked for this job (her current job in Colorado) or the Washington job, and it has truly been an honor and a privilege to serve with these public servants,” Birch said.

In Washington, Birch plans to live on a boat, and she has no plans to sell her home in Steamboat.

“I’ll keep coming back — I’m not selling,” Birch said. “Steamboat is my permanent home, but I’m pretty dedicated to being a part of the whole health care transformation, resistance movement.”

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.

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