Residents speak out about hospital changes

Published 10:02 pm Wednesday, July 19, 2017

More than 10 local residents discussed their concerns with Mayo Clinic Health System’s planned transition of most inpatient services from Albert Lea to Austin during a public forum Tuesday at the Freeborn County Board of Commissioners meeting.

Public comments came after Mayo Clinic Vice President Bobbie Gostout and Mayo Clinic official Kris Johnson left after presenting an overview of the changes and fielding questions from the board, due to work commitments.

Teresa Nicholson, economic development director for Worth and Winnebago counties, said the transition would have a significant impact on the region, leaving a three-county gap for service.

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“If you are a citizen living on the northern tier of Worth County, it’s a long wait for an ambulance to arrive to get you, and it’s a longer wait to get to a facility, unless you are cognizant and aware to tell them that you want to be taken to, say, Austin.”

Nicholson said the Worth and Winnebago Board of Supervisors have “grave concerns” about the transition and plan to pass a resolution to support the efforts of the Albert Lea-Save Our Hospital organization to keep a full-service hospital in Albert Lea.

Albert Lea resident Don Sorensen said the transition exceeds past issues he has discussed with the board.

“The scheduled closing of our hospital is the most serious issue this community has ever faced,” he said.

The transition would put a community the size of Freeborn County on “life support,” creating a devastating effect on the community’s tax base and its ability to attract industry, he said.

Medical care will become more difficult to attain for the area’s senior citizens and poor, he said.

Sorensen said he cannot support Mayo Clinic, and he expressed support for the possible formation of a city-county hospital and local government entities attempting to confront Mayo on the decision.

“Don’t worry about the cost,” he said. “The community will have your back.”

Retired Albert Lea businessman Al Arends said Mayo had promised essential services would not be taken away without the approval of an 11-person committee that included three Albert Lea members. The board was later dissolved. He requested commissioners ask Freeborn County Attorney David Walker for a copy of agreements made at the time the Albert Lea hospital transitioned to Mayo Clinic ownership and when the Albert Lea and Austin hospitals merged, to see if the hospital is in compliance with agreements. Commissioners later passed a resolution requesting Walker attempt to obtain the agreements.

Albert Lea resident Angie Hanson said she believed the city is large enough to have a full-service hospital, and she referenced Gostout’s comments during the community forum late last month at Albert Lea High School comparing traveling 23 miles for childbirth services to traveling the same distance for ice cream, saying the distance was too far for first-time mothers — especially during the winter — and for ICU services.

Albert Lea-Save Our Hospital member Mariah Lynne discussed the organization’s weekly meeting on Sunday and asked whether a commissioner could join the organization’s steering committee. The board later approved resolutions supporting the organization’s efforts to keep a full-service hospital in Albert Lea, appointing District 4 Commissioner Chris Shoff to represent the board on the committee and in any future contacts with Mayo.

Albert Lea resident Jennifer Vogt-Erickson said it seems reasonable for the community to bring in another health care system to meet the community’s needs.

“We are viable,” she said. “It is Mayo’s model that is not viable in our community. We have to — and we can — write our own narrative here.”

Former nurse Barb Callahan expressed support for the board’s efforts to keep a full-service hospital in Albert Lea.

“I am so happy you guys are on board, and I pray that they walk away,” she said.

Another speaker suggested Mayo move most inpatient services to Albert Lea because of the nice features of the facility and the community.

The first of the changes in the transition is expected to be moving the intensive care unit in Albert Lea to Austin in October.

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

Albert Lea resident Jerry Collins said the difference in dates between the shifting of the ICU unit and the labor and delivery services goes against Gostout’s statement that the hospital is conducting the transition in a patient-centered way.

He said based on the impact similar transitions Mayo Clinic Health System has conducted in other communities, the Albert Lea hospital could lose half of its employees in the next three to four years.

According to a statement from the hospital system on Wednesday, the assertion that the hospital could lose half of its employees is a “piece of misinformation that has been circulated by individuals who seem intent on creating fear in the community and has been thoroughly debunked.”

“While some inpatient services are moving from Albert Lea to Austin, it’s important to note that the largest and more predictable segment of care — inpatient behavioral health — is moving to Albert Lea,” the hospital states.

Creating an integrated inpatient behavioral health and addiction services program in Albert Lea means that at least 24 nursing positions, along with other support staff, will move from Austin to Albert Lea, the hospital states.

“In addition, we anticipate an increase in outpatient surgery volumes in Albert Lea that will keep jobs on the campus,” the statement reads. “Positions will shift between the two campuses over the next few years as the services are transitioned, but in the end we expect staffing levels to be very close to today’s levels at both campuses, with each campus well-positioned for growth.”

According to the hospital system, the communication issue between the hospital system and the community was addressed at the board meeting.

“Mayo Clinic Health System recognizes we could have and should have done a better job helping community leaders to understand the challenges facing rural health care and the changes needed to adapt and thrive,” the statement reads. “Through the large public meetings that have already taken place and discussions we will hold in the future with government, business and community leaders, we will be listening to the needs of our patients and working to strengthen our connections with the communities we serve.”

Albert Lea resident Paul Overgaard took issue with the way Mayo officials conducted their visit.

“I’m sure it wasn’t lost on you gentlemen — Mayo came here late, they gave us their slide presentation,” he said. “They were too busy to listen — they left. That’s exactly how they made this decision — ‘there, there little folks, we know what’s best for you’ — nuts to them.”

About Sam Wilmes

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

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