2013 Health Care Community Advocate
Sue Birch, MBA, BSN, RN
“My passion for health has been a driving force in my life.” Sue Birch
Sue Birch’s remarkable career as nurse and community health advocate took root at her grandmother’s bedside. As Sue cared for her terminally ill grandmother – a pinnacle of love in her life – she began to feel a deep sense of compassion and desire to help others.
One of six children in a tight-knit family, Sue learned the importance of family and community early on. Her Hungarian-born father embraced democracy and stressed to his children the importance of integrity and giving back to their communities. The lesson was highlighted for 16-year-old Sue during a family trip to Communist Hungary, where she gained an appreciation for her heritage as well as freedoms and possibilities back in the U.S. “Nobody can strip away your health and education,” her father would say. That view stuck with Sue and helped direct her work in the public health arena.
Sue began studying nursing at Catholic University in her hometown of Washington D.C. before transferring to the University of Colorado where she embarked on pre-med and nursing studies. Before long, she decided to focus exclusively on nursing for more direct care time with patients. Upon receiving her nursing degree, she returned to Washington D.C. where she was a staff nurse at Georgetown University. The mountain lifestyle soon pulled her back to Colorado, where she took a job as nursing supervisor at Kaiser Permanente in Westminster.
Sue poured her heart and soul into caring for patients – so much so that she began to burn out. Marriage and children were in her sights, and she wanted to diversify her career to balance her personal life. Interested in the business-side of healthcare, she pursued an MBA at the University of Colorado. After graduating, Sue worked as a nursing consultant while starting a family. Her daughter Katie was born in 1990.
Shortly after Katie’s birth, Sue and her family made what they thought would be a temporary move to Steamboat Springs to take a break from the city. Sue explored her new community and was impressed by the health and cultural resources Steamboat had to offer. She got involved, assisting Horizons Specialized Services and Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School & Camp with fundraising and community development. She was on the Perry-Mansfield board of directors and helped raise funds to save the camp. In 1992, pregnant with what she thought was her second child, Sue hit the “baby lottery” with twins Connor and Emi.
That same year, friend and fellow nurse Jan Fritz introduced Sue to the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association. Sue began working for the VNA as a public health nurse doing child health clinics before her promotion to Executive Director and, eventually, Chief Executive Officer. At the helm of the Northwest Colorado VNA, Sue strengthened and expanded public health programs in Routt and Moffat counties, including Home Health and the Nurse Family Partnership. Her ability to connect with key partners and recruit teams of talent has helped bring many of her visions to fruition. This includes the VNA’s rural healthcare model, which combines direct care with screening, prevention and education programs. She oversaw the VNA’s purchase and expansion of The Haven Assisted Living Center and the creation of the Aging Well program. She also expanded hospice and bereavement programs to include the Rollingstone Respite House in Steamboat. Sue’s innovative work at the VNA garnered her numerous awards and professional opportunities, including the Robert Wood Johnson Executive Nurse Fellowship and the Bonfils Stanton Foundation’s Livingston Fellowship.
In 2011, Governor Hickenlooper appointed Sue to his cabinet and the role of Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, where she is charged with making healthcare more efficient and available to Coloradans. She oversees more than 300 staff and 26 percent of the state’s budget. “Health is a right, not a privilege,” says Sue, who is more than up for the challenge of helping boost Colorado to healthiest state in the nation.
Amazingly, Sue has also found time to dedicate to global health projects. For the past five years, she has worked with young volunteers in Uganda and Rwanda to improve quality of life for women and children living in slums. The dichotomy of work – deep despair countered by the exuberance of hope – has been a truly inspiring experience for Sue.
Her driven exterior can belie her softer side. A self-described “crazy romantic,” Sue loves impromptu parties and cooking family dinners. She finds her weekends at home in Steamboat, where she decompresses on quiet mountain trails. Art and music nurture her soul – Adele, Eric Clapton and CSN&Y are a few favorites – and balance her demanding work at the state capitol.
One of Sue’s favorite places is the creek-side gazebo at the Rollingstone Respite House, which bears the engraving “Live, Love, Laugh.” It’s a message about embracing life, even through death, she says. Passionate, benevolent, determined: Sue Birch work is forging more paths to good health for residents in the Yampa Valley and Colorado. Doc Willett certainly would have approved.