County approves contacting Minnesota Attorney General, Congress about hospital

Published 8:06 pm Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Freeborn County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday approved sending letters to the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office and U.S. First District Rep. Tim Walz in regards to Mayo Clinic’s planned transition of most inpatient services from Albert Lea to Austin. 

The board’s vote came after Freeborn County Attorney David Walker recommended the board approve sending a letter to Walz’s office after the congressman asked whether Freeborn County would be interested in stating it has issues with the consolidation of health care services in rural communities after Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill announced she is inquiring about issues regarding rural health care.   

“I would like authorization from this board to write a letter on behalf of Freeborn County, saying, ‘Yes, we do recognize that there is a rural health care crisis, yes we want this to stop. We do believe that these large health care providers need to provide effective health care services in Freeborn County and rural areas across the country,’” he said. “I know this board feels that way, and I think that would be very consistent with the good, powerful position Freeborn County can take.”

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Though it might not initially stop the transition, the involvement of Congress would spark Mayo Clinic Health System’s concerns about its public perception in Albert Lea, Walker said.

“Mayo Clinic has taken action here that does not take adequate account of local concerns,” he said.

Mayo Clinic Health System’s decision in June to transition most inpatient services to Austin has sparked negative feedback in Albert Lea and the surrounding area. The intensive care unit is scheduled to be moved in October to Austin. 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 will be the last to relocate to Austin in late 2019 or early 2020. Emergency services, pregnancy care, outpatient surgeries and lab and radiology services will remain in both locations.

Board action came one day after the Albert Lea City Council unanimously directed city staff to contact the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office in connection with the planned transition. 

Interim Freeborn County Administrator Kelly Callahan said hospital system officials informed commissioners at a prior meeting that they did not plan to slow the transition or sell the Albert Lea hospital to the community. He described the steps the county has taken to look into the issue.

“The reality is, they are not going to change their mind, unless we take some legal action,” he said. “That legal action is forthcoming. It’s either going to be through the Federal Trade Commission or the Department of Justice, or it’s going to be through the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office.”

Walker said it is written in the health system’s bylaws that the health system’s discontinuance of any major medical service would not occur without the vote of a supermajority of a board of directors. He said he did not believe the health system’s explanation that they did not need a supermajority vote because it is moving the services to its Austin campus, because the health system is discontinuing essential Albert Lea medical services.

In a statement Wednesday, Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin said it is confident it is following proper procedure in transitioning most inpatient services to Austin.

“We are confident that we have complied with all the requirements of our bylaws and the law,” the health system stated.

Walker has been in contact with Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, and said she is concerned about the possible local impact the transition of most inpatient services will have.

“She called me last week,” he said. “We had a good, solid conversation on the phone about this. She said she was going to leave no stone unturned in this situation.”

About Sam Wilmes

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

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