When you pull into Hugo, found 100 miles east of Denver on Highway 287, you’re greeted by one grocery store, one restaurant, one liquor store, one historic railroad roundhouse, two bars and a single antique store by the name of Main Street Mamas.
“I am the Main Mama, I am indeed,” said Linda Orrell, who runs the shop.
Sitting on a bar stool in what used to be an old pool hall, she said Hugo is pretty small — “about 825, or so, maybe 850 (people) on a good year.” It’s held steady for a long time, she says, because it’s a good place to live. “It's a town that people tend to come back to to retire,” Orrell said. “And it is home.”
There’s also something else you’ll find in Hugo: one regional hospital.
From the outside, Lincoln Community Hospital looks more like a small 1960s-era apartment building. But it has all the essential high-tech health care equipment: modern imaging machines, tele-medicine, even an AirLife helicopter. Rachel Smith, the director of nursing, said the thing that sets Lincoln apart is the quality of its care.
“It's definitely not treat 'em and street 'em,” Smith said. “It's definitely somebody you're going to see maybe even later that day, later that week.”
Smith grew up here. Her mom, Linda Messer, is the lab director and said what defines the hospital is the sense of community that comes with being in a small town. “The thing that I like best about rural health is that I get to take care of all my friends and family,” Messer said. “So it’s rare that I don’t know everyone that I take care of.”
The close connections are easily seen here. In one room, recovering from back surgery is 86-year-old retiree Ken Sterling. He was in the Navy, then did appliance repair and even served as mayor of Hugo. Sterling’s dad edited the local paper, the Eastern Colorado Plainsman and helped build the hospital back in the ‘50s. There’s a reason Lincoln Community is in Hugo.
“I don't know how much you've driven out in this part of the country but there's a whole lot of nothing,” Sterling said. “People have a tendency to get a lead foot, there are a lot of car accidents.”
Interstate 70 is about 15 miles north of town at the junction with Limon, so a lot of people pass through the area. Officially though, there are just a little over 5,500 people in all of Lincoln County, a population density of about two people per square mile.
“There are an awful lot of people that depend on this place,” Sterling said of the hospital. “And I'm not talking of people that work here, I'm talking about people that get care here.”
People like Ted Lyons, who’s down the hall recovering from an infection. Lyons is 69 and was a cattle rancher and a Republican county commissioner for more than a decade. He’s been watching a lot of C-SPAN on TV, including the push to replace the Affordable Care Act. Lyons said he’d like President Trump to visit Hugo’s hospital.
“I thought I’d write a letter to Trump and see if he was flying over in his helicopter,” Lyons said. “He could land down on (the hospital’s) heli-pad and come visit what a real hospital is about.”
Lyons agrees with President Trump that Obamacare needs to change, that’s it’s not worth having and “it leaves too many loopholes.”
As the co-owner of one of the two bars in town, he’s heard people’s stories, including one couple who saw their insurance premiums skyrocket.
“They said their insurance went from $400 a month to $1200 a month and then that outfit quit,” said Lyons. “So they were totally without insurance.”
Lyons, like half the hospital’s patients, is covered by Medicare. One chronic problem is that reimbursement to hospitals through Medicare doesn’t cover the full cost of their services. Lyons was on the hospital's board, when it nearly shut down a couple of decades ago. He wants lawmakers to work together to keep the parts of Obamacare that work and fix funding for hospitals.
“You don't drown the duck to get a feather out of him,” Lyons said.
Back up the hall, Ken Sterling also supports whatever helps save his hometown hospital. “Don't even talk about losing this place!” Sterling exclaims. “That would be a tragedy. Really.”
Both know rural hospital finances are tricky. As Congress aims to reform health care once more, many small town facilities like Lincoln County Hospital, are on thin ice.