UNHEALTHY COMPETITION

TWO SMALL TOWNS. TWO COSTLY HOSPITALS. ONE NASTY FEUD.LITTLE HASSLE ON THE PRAIRIE SANE HEALTH CARE IS THE LATEST LOSS IN THE AGE-OLD RIFT BETWEEN BRUSH AND FORT MORGAN.

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Every generation or so--most recently in 1976--the Bijou Creek, which runs north through the eastern plains from Colorado Springs, pours into the South Platte River in such volume that it causes the river to run backward. Its waters swell and cascade over the railroad embankments and into the small towns that line the Platte northeast of Denver.

Most of the time, however, the Bijou is just another dry ditch cutting through the sagebrush, a river of dust and stone. Over time the prevailing western winds have picked up the accumulated sand in the riverbed and swept it thirty miles to the east, several miles south of the town of Brush.

There the sediment has piled up into undulating sand hills, which for thousands of years have soaked up pure plains rainwater and stored it like giant sponges. In 1955 Brush took advantage of this geological happenstance and sank five wells into the sand hills, "finding the best drinking water in the county," according to a description at the time.

Just eight miles upstream, Fort Morgan, the Morgan County seat, has been forced to tap directly into the Platte for its drinking water. Although the supply is virtually limitless, agricultural runoff and other pollutants have rendered Fort Morgan's drinking water considerably less pure than its next-door neighbor's. The difference has become a source of pride and bragging rights for Brush.

"Brush has the most wonderful soft water," gloats Mayor Larry Coughlin, a veterinarian who has been an elected resident of city hall for more than two decades. "Fort Morgan has very hard water. And they're jealous of us because we've got great water and they have terrible water."

If only the comparative sweetness of drinking water were the sole source of contention between the two towns.

Brush and Fort Morgan have nurtured an intense civic rivalry that has defined each of the prairie towns for more than 100 years. The competition dates to at least 1889 when, in their first official contest, Fort Morgan edged out Brush in voting among settlers to determine which would be the county seat.

Since then, both municipalities have found ample opportunity to maintain the division. Fort Morgan, founded by a band of pious settlers from Greeley, outlawed the sale of alcohol right up until 1965. Brush, a wide-open cattle-driving town from the start, was glad to have the business. The towns also are home to a shut-the-store high school sports rivalry.

More recently, the competition has scuttled attempts to arrange numerous joint civic projects. Over the years, proposals to merge the two towns' country clubs, water treatment plants, airports and economic development efforts have all failed to cross the invisible boundary that traces Dobbs Bridge Road, which divides Fort Morgan's 10,000 residents from Brush's 4,500.

"We have the reputation of being the wealthiest county in the state," Morgan County Economic Development Corp. director Patti Lewis says sarcastically. "And we must be, because we have two of everything. Whatever one has, the other has to have."

Despite the occasional resigned shrugs, however, the cross-county sniping has never really become a genuine problem. Until now.

As is the case with nearly everything else, Fort Morgan and Brush have their own hospitals. Lying directly eight miles from the modern East Morgan County Hospital in Brush is the equally well-equipped Colorado Plains Medical Center in Fort Morgan.

"Why a county with a population of maybe 25,000 needs two emergency rooms, two CT scans, two MRIs, two laboratories and two rehabilitation centers is beyond me," says Lewis. "The duplication of services--the cost is astronomical."

Karen Midkiff should know. As manager of marketing and development for Mercy Medical Center of Durango, she was on the winning side of a similar, and recently resolved, battle that pitted Durango's two small hospitals against each other. Having two competing facilities in such a small community, she says, "is a waste of taxpayers' money and a drain on the system."

For years Morgan County's two hospitals have seesawed between financial success and struggle by maintaining fiercely loyal local patient bases that have fed off the towns' historic rivalry. Many families in Brush wouldn't think of patronizing Colorado Plains. In Fort Morgan, the reverse holds true.

The toe-to-toe hospital competition recently has become a drain. Apart from the overall cost escalation that comes with such close-range duplication of services, both institutions frequently must turn to the communities to raise funds for their respective sick bays. As a result, money perhaps better spent on a single facility is diluted.

The hospital rivalry also has sapped the area--Brush in particular--of physicians. Doctors who visit the area have been turned off by the strain between the two communities, officials say. The result: No babies have been delivered in Brush since last November because there are no doctors. The county's three nursing homes, which need local physicians to keep their beds full, complain that the shortage hurts them as well.

Morgan County's two hospitals appear particularly out of step in 1994. Health-care reform aimed at scaling back from freer-spending days seems inevitable. Traditionally, duplication of services and equipment among competing hospitals just blocks from each other has run up costs. In Colorado, such escalation was goosed by the sunsetting, in 1987, of the state's certificate of need program, which permitted officials to review a hospital's big-ticket gadget purchases and halt them if they were redundant.

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