‘We are not done’

Published 5:03 pm Saturday, September 30, 2017

With the move of Albert Lea’s ICU, residents rally against changes

Approximately 300 people rallied in Central Park Saturday afternoon to showcase the community’s continued commitment to keeping a full-service, acute-care hospital in Albert Lea.

The rally came after the first services planned to transition to Austin — the intensive care unit — moved last week.

“They are hoping that we’re done,” said Save Our Hospital Co-Chairman Brad Arends. “They are hoping that we’re through. Our mission today is not only to rally the community and the 35,000 people around Albert Lea that use this hospital. Our mission today is to emphasize that commitment — that we are not done.”

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The event began with remarks from state and local representatives and concluded with a march from Central Park past the emergency room at the Albert Lea hospital, where participants held signs expressing displeasure about the hospital’s decision, such as “M-A-Y-O, give us back our hospital,” “Who’s hospital? Our hospital,” “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Mayo’s greed has got to go,” and other messages.

Prior to the march, former House Minority Leader and candidate for governor Paul Thissen called on the hospital system to pause the planned transition to give the community a chance to stop the elimination of services in Albert Lea. He said the hospital needs to be open and transparent.

Over the past five years, Mayo Clinic has made profits that range between $400 million and $800 million per year, said Thissen, who discussed the responsibility he said the hospital has to taxpayers based on the state investment in the Destination Medical Center project. He said he is open to re-writing language regarding the DMC, as well as making it easier for communities to bring in a health care provider.

Thissen predicted if the hospital system transitions most inpatient services, similar situations could unfold in other communities.

In a statement after the rally, Mayo Clinic Health System spokeswoman Mandie Siems said the community and the hospital system have some of the same goals.

“We see the people here at this rally,” she said. “We see that they’re passionate. They’re fighting for quality health care in Albert Lea, and on that we agree. We do. We have a common goal of keeping that high-quality health care here in the Albert Lea community, and we are here to stay, to partner and just continue to be a part of the Albert Lea community. The difficult decisions we’ve had to make about the services on our Albert Lea and Austin campuses reflect our commitment to keep both hospitals open and serving our patients, and to make the best use of resources so that high-quality care remains available to the entire region. Mayo Clinic remains firmly committed to Albert Lea and Freeborn County, and we plan to be an integral part of the community for generations to come.” 

Angie Hanson, local organizing committee chairwoman for Save Our Hospital, said Matthew Kumar, a Mayo doctor who chairs the Department of Anesthesiology at the health system’s Albert Lea and Austin campuses and has filed four antitrust complaints against the hospital since March 2015, was threatened with a lawsuit by Mayo and warned not to come to the rally.

Kumar, who was scheduled to speak during the event, did not come. An empty chair symbolized  his absence.

“He predicted this would happen,” Hanson said of Kumar’s statement that consolidation would occur. “He saw the writing on the wall.”

Siems denied Kumar was threatened prior to the rally.

“Mayo Clinic can assure that Dr. Kumar was not threatened with a lawsuit,” she said.

Save Our Hospital co-chairpersons Mariah Lynne and Arends discussed the organization’s goal of keeping a full-service, acute-care hospital in Albert Lea.

With funding from the city of Albert Lea, Freeborn County and Save Our Hospital, a health care finance consultant was hired this week to evaluate the long-term feasibility of having a non- Mayo Clinic affiliated hospital in Albert Lea, Arends said. The hiring of a health care consultant was made after the three entities agreed to contribute up to $35,000 for the effort. The name of the accountant was not announced at the rally.

Fairmont City Councilor Tom Hawkins addressed the crowd, presenting an overview of changes that took place after Mayo Clinic Health System took over the Fairmont hospital.

By 2009, hospital officials increased the level of service at the facility with primary and secondary physicians, Hawkins said. He estimated the number of hospital staff members has decreased by 200 to 300, and patients now have to be taken to Mankato for basic services, said Hawkins, who attributed changes in health care delivery in the Fairmont area to the hospital system’s regionalizing health care delivery.

He said problems in rural health care delivered by Mayo are caused by the hospital system’s operating strategy — drawing cheers from the audience — and he claimed the hospital has a monopolistic approach for providing small town health care.

“My definition of Mayo is arrogance,” he said.

Hawkins called on the community to take a stand to prevent Mayo from holding health care services hostage and promised the community would be able to recruit health care workers if another health care provider is brought into the community.

Despite pushback from state and federal lawmakers, local representatives and the community, Mayo Clinic Health System has not budged from its planned timeline of moving inpatient services to Austin. Thursday was expected to be the final day patients would be admitted into the intensive care unit in Albert Lea.
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.

Despite the impending transition, rally participants expressed support for continuing toward their goal of keeping a full-service, acute-care hospital in Albert Lea.

Resident Karen Cibert expressed frustration with Mayo Clinic’s health care delivery.

“Mayo’s solution to alternative health care is putting us in an ambulance or a helicopter,” she said. “My insurance does not cover a helicopter ride. And this is a political vendetta between health care and insurance companies.”

Cibert said if she is taken to another hospital, she receives out-of-network costs, resulting in her insurance provider and hospital making money.

Linda Ferguson, who was in the last graduating class at Naeve School of Nursing, said the community had excellent medical providers before Mayo Clinic Health System came into the community.

“Mayo does some things better than anybody in the world, and why are they afraid of our rural health care?” she said. “If we don’t serve our rural community, are we going to have reasonably-priced food? Is Albert Lea going to die because of economic wasteland?”

She called the moving of most inpatient services “a disservice.”

“It’s morally wrong, ethically wrong as far as I am concerned,” she said.  

Don Sorensen and Jan Mattson said the event went well.

“It could have been better, yes, but it was (expletive) good,” Sorensen said. “Will Mayo get the message? I don’t think they are even listening. But if we keep hollering, we get the Legislature involved, we get other small towns involved — they start building a coalition — we are going to have a force that is going to become unstoppable.”

About Sam Wilmes

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

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