Walz: ‘Trust is strained’

Published 8:50 pm Monday, July 31, 2017

Congressman voices residents’ concerns in letter to Mayo CEO

First District Congressman Tim Walz sent a letter to Mayo Clinic CEO John Noseworthy Monday afternoon after a packed meeting in Albert Lea about Mayo Clinic Health System’s plans to move most inpatient services to Austin.

The meeting at Albert Lea City Hall included representatives from the Minnesota Nurses Association and Service Employees International Union, leaders of the Save Our Hospital initiative, local officials and other residents. The Council Chambers were filled with standing room only, and the crowd flowed into the hallway. Many of the people in attendance wore T-shirts with the message  of “Save Our Hospital,” while others carried signs.

Several community members and officials said they did not know of the planned changes to the Albert Lea hospital until Mayo officials made the announcement in June and they were disappointed that they did not have a chance to provide input. They said there is also much data and answers that still need to be provided about the decision.

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“Mayo’s failure to fully and proactively engage the Albert Lea community on this decision is disappointing,” Walz, DFL-Mankato, wrote in the letter. “Hospitals — like our schools and small businesses on Main Street — are the lifeblood of rural America and small towns … I urge you to give my constituents’ concerns and ideas your full and fair consideration.”

Walz said for such a large issue, he believes the public needs to be heard, and he intended to express the concerns of his constituents.

“Trust is strained or gone for many of you,” he said during the meeting.

Mariah Lynne, co-chairwoman of Save Our Hospital, said she thinks what happens with Albert Lea’s hospital is a pivotal moment for Greater Minnesota, and she asked for Walz’s help amplifying the community’s voice.

Albert Lea resident and retired business owner Al Arends, who is overseeing the fundraising committee for Save Our Hospital, talked about the higher health insurance premiums Freeborn County faces and noted that these rates make it difficult to be attractive to industry and businesses.

Walz asked Arends when he had first heard about Mayo Clinic Health System’s announced changes.

In his answer, Arends compared it to putting a frog in cool water and then gradually turning up the heat. He said there have been little changes in recent years that led up to the big announcement in June.

Several Save Our Hospital leaders discussed the lack of an economic impact study before the decision.

Jean Eaton, former Albert Lea mayor and chairwoman of the public relations for the Save Our Hospital group, talked about several young families and retirees who have recently moved to the community.

“You take (the hospital services) away and you’re going to have devastation in our community,” Eaton said.

Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, said the nurses are on the front line in the fight for hospital services.

“This is not the time to be closing off health care access to people,” Turner said.

Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams said city leaders have asked for several different metrics of data from the hospital system about economic and job-related changes, and they were told by Mayo leaders that they didn’t know the answers to those questions yet.

Adams said he and Mayor Vern Rasmussen, who has recused himself from decisions tied to the issue because of his employment as a physical therapist with Mayo, had met with hospital leadership regularly in recent months but were “blindsided” by the decision.

Freeborn County Attorney David Walker said the community needs facts about the effects of the decision. He said he has reached out to the Attorney General’s Office and has been exploring the documents and bylaws from when Mayo Clinic Health System first took over the hospital in 1995 and when there were changes in 2011 and 2013. He is also looking into whether they were anti-competitive practices that took place.

District 27A Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, said she was proud of the community coming together to try to fight to keep a full-service hospital in the city.

“The passion that I see and the love for this community … it’s amazing,” Bennett said.

A meeting with Mayo officials

After the meeting at City Hall, Walz, Bennett and two representatives from the Save Our Hospital group met with Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin CEO Mark Ciota, and Walz expressed the concerns stated from residents and local government officials at the meeting — particularly with how the decision was made and how community members and local leaders felt they were not asked for input into the decision before it was announced.

“You have a community in turmoil who does not trust the words coming out of your mouth,” Walz said.

The congressman said there is a belief in the community that Mayo’s decision has been made and that nothing can be done to change it.

Ciota said he is getting “clear indications” that Mayo is going to move forward with the plan and the timeline previously laid out.

“I would really re-think that,” Walz said.

He noted he has never seen emotions run as high during his time in office as they are right now in the Albert Lea community with the reaction to Mayo’s announcement.

Ciota said he, too, has taken the changes personally as he has lived in the community for many years and raised his family here. He said he would have been disappointed if residents did not respond the way they have.

He briefly discussed why the decision was made, including the difficulty in hiring physicians.

He also said the number of patient days in the hospital is decreasing. Of the 50 beds at the Albert Lea hospital, there are no more than 12 to 15 patients in them each day. The hospital is down to having about one baby born every day, which is down from about two or three a day.

After meeting with Ciota, Walz, his staff and the representatives from the Save Our Hospital organization went on a brief tour in the hospital to see where the services would be that would be moving to Austin.

Mayo plans to move Albert Lea’s intensive care unit to Austin in October, followed by inpatient surgeries in January. The behavioral health unit is expected to move from Austin to Albert Lea in 2019, and labor and delivery services are planned to be the last to relocate to Austin in late 2019 or early 2020.