Freeborn County could file injunction against Mayo Clinic

Published 10:15 pm Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Freeborn County officials were presented with the possible option of seeking a temporary injunction on Tuesday to stop Mayo Clinic Health System’s planned transitioning of most inpatient services from Albert Lea to Austin.

The option was discussed during a Freeborn County Board of Commissioners workshop, which was attended by Minnesota Nurses Association organizer Jay Armstrong and several Albert Lea nurses represented by the union.

Freeborn County would likely need outside counsel if officials attempt to file a temporary  injunction, Armstrong said, but that option could be used, depending on how badly the community and local government want to keep the hospital in Albert Lea.

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Freeborn County Attorney David Walker said certain conditions must be met to meet the standard for a judge to issue a temporary injunction. He cited a Boston case, in which a temporary injunction was issued after an attorney general expressed concern over the effect ending emergency services would have had on the community. The injunction was met after standards were reached, he said.

Walker said Freeborn County was not threatening Mayo Clinic Health System by being presented with the option, and a determination of the county’s course of action has not been determined.

“I don’t know whether an injunction would be possible in the case, but it’s one of those options to consider and to explore,” he said.

Armstrong said government entities could issue eminent domain —  a “nuclear option,” he said — and take over the hospital facility until another health care provider can be introduced into the building. He said he expected the option, if implemented, to be challenged in court.

Mayo Clinic Health System spokeswoman Tami Yokiel said clinic officials have not received any notice of legal action and can’t comment on any potential action.

Albert Lea nurse Jill Morstad said she believed Mayo Clinic Health System officials have not been as transparent as they claimed they would be during any transition process.

“We were very much blindsided when we were told — some of us at work — two weeks ago yesterday about this decision,” she said.

In a statement issued Tuesday afternoon, Yokiel said she understood the change is difficult to understand and hear.

“A group of leaders at Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin has been reviewing the medical center’s services for almost 18 months, and this group has been very transparent with Albert Lea and Austin staff since discussions started,” she said. “All staff have received numerous emails over the course of the last 18 months to let them know change was imminent in order to keep health care local.”

According to Yokiel, thorough and thoughtful evaluation process with input from many stakeholders was undertaken before the decision to consolidate services was made.

“Until just a few weeks ago, the decision about which campus had not been finalized,” she said. “Staff were notified in a timely manner once the recommendation to consolidate inpatient care in Austin was reviewed and endorsed by Mayo Clinic Health System leadership.”

During the meeting, Armstrong said there are 126 union nurses in Albert Lea, adding he believes there could be up to 500 jobs lost during the transition — some of which are among the highest-paid in the community.

Yokiel described the number of jobs the union said could be lost is “completely incorrect, as it is much lower than that.”

“The estimate of hundreds of jobs being lost has no basis in fact — it is an invented figure,” she said. “Each campus has about 1,000 employees. Since we are only shifting less than 5 percent of our services from Albert Lea to Austin, there is no basis for saying that half of the staff will be transitioned.

“In addition, we are moving our inpatient psychiatric services unit from Austin to Albert Lea, which means positions will be added on the Albert Lea campus.

“We have been very honest with our staff and the community in saying that at this point, we do not have the exact number of positions that will transition, but it will be a fraction of what the union is claiming.”

Discussion also centered on organizing efforts, and the possibility of using Freeborn County Fairgrounds as the spot for a rally was talked about by District 2 Commissioner Dan Belshan.

Armstrong said he believed the hospital was planning the transition prior to the Albert Lea and Austin hospital merger in 2013, and he presented a brief review of the leadup to the announcement of the consolidation two weeks ago.

Armstrong discussed what he believes are the hospital’s motives in small communities.

“It’s a way that they are reducing capacity, reducing the options for where patients can go, and at the same time they are cherry-picking those cases that have the highest reimbursement and sending them to Rochester,” he said.

“This isn’t a case of them not being able to afford to keep the hospital open, this is the choice on their part to close because they can make more money by consolidating.”

After the meeting, Morstad said she hopes Mayo Clinic realizes the community is being hurt in the process, and she said she wants the hospital to realize the needs of patients and the communities come first.

Morstad said she is not sure if she will be able to retain her job.

“I don’t know at this point in time — still very uncertain,” she said. “I feel very distressed for the community, that the community is not going to be supported by this hospital anymore, from the way things are proceeding at this time. I feel more distressed for the community than I do myself as an individual employee.”

Nurse Angie Obermeyer said the hospital is not following its mission statement posted in its facility, and nurse Breanna Munson described the transition as devastating.

“It’s devastating to our community and everybody that works here,” she said. “It’s awful.”

The first of the changes to take place in the transition will be moving the intensive care unit in Albert Lea to Austin in October.

Inpatient surgeries will move to Austin in January 2018, and the behavioral health center will move from Austin to Albert Lea in 2019. Labor and delivery services will be the last to relocate to Austin in late 2019 or early 2020.

A public meeting featuring a question-and-answer session to discuss the transition with Mayo officials and government leaders is planned for 7 p.m. Thursday in the Albert Lea High School auditorium.

Randy Kehr, executive director of the Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce, will moderate a panel discussion with Mark Ciota, CEO of Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin; Bobbie Gostout, vice president of Mayo Clinic and leader of Mayo Clinic Health System; Chris Shoff, Freeborn County District 4 commissioner; and Chad Adams, Albert Lea city manager.

About Sam Wilmes

Sam Wilmes covers crime, courts and government for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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