Moffat County Locals: Jennifer Riley, a local at the head of community health care

Jennifer Riley is a Craig native who’s celebrating her first year as the CEO of
Memorial Regional Health.

Courtesy photo

For years, Memorial Regional Health was led by an outside management company, which often led locals to ask: When is the CEO leaving?

Nobody asks MRH Chief Executive Officer Jennifer Riley that question, though, because Riley is a local as much as anyone, having been born at the old Memorial Hospital and graduating from Moffat County High School in 1991.

With 12 years at MRH, Riley is celebrating her first year as its CEO, but if you ask her, MRH is much more than a health care provider.

After high school, Riley attended college at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English. She worked briefly in Denver before returning to Craig in December 2001.

Riley first started working for MRH as its chief of organizational excellence. The position was part of the leadership team, and with it, Riley handled many of MRH’s marketing, communication and public relations responsibilities.

Her title and responsibilities evolved over the years, and Riley went back to school in 2017. She finished with a master’s degree in health administration from Ohio University in 2019 and became the chief operating officer at MRH before taking over the role as CEO last year.

“I really love it,” Riley said of her work. “It’s a hard job, but honestly, this new role as CEO has been the most fulfilling.”

Being so deeply engrained in the community for so long has helped Riley in the position too, and that’s probably a good thing, because according to Riley, this is not an easy job.

“People know me and some of them have known me for a long time,” Riley said of working in the same community where she grew up. “Certainly, they’re always willing to give feedback and tell me what they think needs to change or how it should change, but it really has been great this last year.”

Looking at MRH operations, Riley said the organization functions far beyond being a health care provider, though that remains MRH’s primary mission.

“I think our hospital, our organization, is a flagship organization for the community,” Riley said. “Every community needs pillars like health care, education, a strong economic environment, and we are an economic driver.”

She explained that MRH employs 350 people, many of whom are married or have significant others who also work in the community. At MRH, the two-week payroll is typically between $900,000 and $1 million. Additionally, the hospital uses many local utilities and services, buys lots of supplies and supports numerous community events and functions.

“These are things that generate revenue for our community,” Riley said, adding that MRH “wants to be a vibrant part of the fabric.”

Looking back on her first year as CEO, Riley said there weren’t very many surprises, but if there was one, it’s that she didn’t expect for some of the positive changes at MRH to happen as quickly as they have.

“With that, specifically, I’m talking about our culture, I’m talking about really getting morale to start to turnaround in the organization,” Riley said. “I think it is because there is a lot of things that have changed.”

Some of those changes include turning a corner with COVID pandemic and seeing lighter restrictions with a reduced strain on health care providers. Riley said she feels like we’re on the downhill side of the pandemic, as MRH is still seeing some positive COVID tests and hospital admissions due to the virus, but the severity of the pandemic has eased to the point that RSV and the flu are hitting local health care providers harder this winter than COVID is.

In her first year as CEO, Riley has been laser focused on MRH’s finances. When she stepped into the position, the hospital’s finances were bleak, as MRH went through “a very, very difficult financial period at the end of 2019 and into 2020 where (MRH) literally had zero days cash,” Riley explained.

But Riley and the MRH leadership team have worked hard to rebuild that, and at the end of November, MRH had 59 days cash on hand. Riley said MRH had to make some hard decisions to get to this point, but she believes the organization is coming back to a healthier place financially, though MRH is still not where it needs to be.

“You have to have strong finances to employ the good people, and you have to have good people in order to generate quality health care, so it’s very cyclical,” Riley said of the relationship between a hospital system’s finances and its health care delivery.

Looking forward, Riley expects financial reimbursements will continue to present the biggest challenge ahead for MRH, in addition to unfunded mandates coming down from the state level and a looming nursing shortage.

“You’ve got lots of different insurance companies in the market. You’ve got the public option that Colorado residents will have access to,” Riley said. “It’s all coming back to what insurance wants to pay for a service. That’s going to be our biggest challenge.”

MRH will also have to deal with unfunded mandates, including new state legislation that is designed to lower the cost of health care services but will require more of health care providers.

“We’re having to hire full time staff just to manage a program when the intent is to lower the cost of health care, so dealing with unfunded mandates, dealing with reimbursement, and I think we’re getting ready to see a big nursing shortage in the next 5 to 10 years, and how are we going to work through that? How are we going to survive that?” Riley said of the challenges ahead.

Outside of work, Riley enjoys spending time with her husband, Steve Martinson, a retired teacher who taught in Moffat County for 27 years. Riley’s daughter, Caroline, is now 21 years old and just had her first baby, giving Riley and Martinson their first grandson.

“He really truly is one of the kindest humans on the planet, and he’s a super grandpa,” Riley said of her husband. “He and my mom split watching Jameson, who just turned 1.”

Growing up in Moffat, Riley never envisioned herself returning to Craig and working inside the hospital where she was born, but in hindsight, it couldn’t have worked out any better for her.

“It just never even crossed my mind,” Riley said. “(When I was young) I knew I was going to go to college. I chose to go to Wyoming — that’s where my dad had gone. It just never occurred to me (that I’d return to Craig and work at MRH), but I had Caroline and I was getting a divorce, so I had an opportunity to move back up here.”

Happenstance and the right set of circumstances created the opportunity for Riley to return to Craig, where she has her family and support.

“I have had so many wonderful opportunities,” Riley said, adding that working with then-Moffat County Assessor Suzanne Brinks when Riley first returned to Craig helped her immensely. “(Suzanne) just empowered all of her staff to grow.”

That also helped lead Riley to get involved with various committees and county groups, and she even served a term on Craig City Council. She has also served on the library board for 12 years, was elected to the community college board, and spends time volunteering for various MRH events in the community. Riley currently serves on the Colorado Rural Health Center Board and on the Western Health Care Alliance Board of Directors.

In her free time, when she is able to get some, Riley enjoys being outside, hiking and riding a tandem bicycle with her husband. The couple also likes to escape to the mountains when they can, especially if it means they get to go skiing or snowshoeing.

Looking ahead, Riley said MRH will focus on doing what it does best — providing health care — and doing it really well. MRH has a solid base of primary care providers, and is focusing on supporting staff in addition to recruitment and retention. 

In terms of staffing, Riley greatly enjoys how MRH has started to look internally and locally to fill open positions. The MRH leadership team is people that were hired internally, and that might be Riley’s greatest point of pride.

“That’s what I’m proud of, I’m proud of how we grow this organization on the backbones, and the strengths, and the skills of the people who are already here and want to be here,” Riley said. “There’s a belief that something outside is better — and sometimes that is true, but a lot of times it isn’t, especially when you look at a community like Craig.

“Craig is rural and remote, and it’s not for everybody. The people who want to be here love it, and those are the people we want to be a part of this organization for a long time.”

For Riley, she could end her career at MRH and be quite content.