Albert Lea Save Our Hospital efforts get national attention

Published 10:35 pm Thursday, November 16, 2017

The efforts of the Albert Lea-Save Our Hospital organization to take back a full-service, acute-care hospital in Albert Lea received national attention this week.

The organization was featured in an online article Thursday in Politico, a national political journalism organization.

The article discussed the controversy surrounding Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea’s plan to transition most inpatient services to Austin.

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“It’s great,” said Save Our Hospital Co-Chairwoman Mariah Lynne. “It’s a well-written article.”

In the article, Save Our Hospital members expressed frustration with the approach Mayo has taken with the Albert Lea hospital since buying it.

“Mayo made all these overtures about, ‘Oh, it’s going to be so good,’” former state Rep. Paul Overgaard said in the article. “I wouldn’t say we were stupid, but we believed people when they told us.”

Bobbie Gostout’s comments at a June community meeting comparing driving 23 miles for health care services to driving the same distance for ice cream — and the negative attention it drew — were discussed in the article.

Mayo’s stated reasons for the transition, including financial difficulties, were discussed in the article, as well as the hospital system’s comments that the Albert Lea hospital will continue to have an extraordinary hospital.

Mayo Clinic Health System stated the move is meant to strengthen rural health care, not destroy it.

In a response to the article Thursday, Mayo Clinic spokeswoman Ginger Plumbo said there were “mischaracterizations” and “errors” in the article, stating the hospital system is committed to Albert Lea and Austin hospitals but is facing challenges as health care evolves.

“We look forward to continuing to operate a robust medical facility in Albert Lea and Austin,” she said.

Community concerns regarding medical trips from Albert Lea to Austin in poor weather conditions and a possible loss of identity were discussed.

The article tied in the complaints of local residents to anger related to what some said is a loophole in U.S. health care policy involving nearly 5,000 hospitals given tax-exempt status to raise substantial amounts of charitable money and avoid paying state and local taxes.

The article stated in return, hospitals are “loosely required to pursue a public mission, to put patients’ needs first, while channeling any profits into their facilities. But under IRS rules, there’s no minimum level of community service that hospitals must provide to qualify as tax-exempt, nor limit on annual profits despite their not-for-profit status.”

Though Mayo Clinic is tax-exempt, Plumbo said the hospital pays taxes and provided $629.7 million in care to people in need in 2016, including $83.3 million in charity care and $546.6 million in unpaid portions of Medicaid and other indigent programs for the uninsured or underinsured, along with contributing $6.7 million in financial and in-kind donations to local communities in 2016.

Plumbo said unlike a for-profit corporation, Mayo Clinic’s proceeds are reinvested in research and education that improves health care in the nation, and she discussed Mayo’s economic impact nationwide and in the state of Minnesota.

In Freeborn County, the hospital system provides approximately 1,000 direct jobs, 500 indirect jobs, $180 million in economic contribution and $9.8 million in state and local taxes generated by its economic activity, she said.

Testimony in the article included comments saying services have been cut back since the Albert Lea hospital affiliated with Mayo Clinic.

“We’ve lost things, rather than gained things,” said Jill Morstad, an ICU nurse who has worked at Mayo hospitals in Rochester and Albert Lea, in the article. “I can’t believe that a community this size cannot have a functioning, inpatient, full-service hospital. I can’t get my head around that.”

The article stated Morstad lost her position in the transition, while Plumbo stated the hospital system offered nurses affected by the transition jobs in the consolidated ICU or open positions at the Albert Lea hospital.

Mayo Clinic stated since 1995, the hospital system has added a new clinic building, and later two-story expansion of that clinic; an expanded surgical center and a new Cancer Center, helipad, MRI and other state-of-the-art radiology equipment; and instant connections to specialists at Mayo Clinic through eICU, eDelivery and telestroke.

“These additions and expansions were achieved with more than $34 million in investments by Mayo Clinic and a strong partnership with Naeve Health Care Foundation, which has leveraged the endowment left by the Naeve Health Care Association and raised funds in the community to contribute millions of dollars to support the hospital and clinic,” Plumbo said.

Mayo Clinic recently announced a $5 million investment at the Albert Lea campus, including renovating the Cancer Center, adding observation beds, creating an integrated behavioral health and addictions service, adding imaging equipment and upgrading the cooling system at the campus.

The article stated the lack of standards regarding not-for-profit hospitals can be a problem, and major teaching hospitals like Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and Massachusetts General in Boston have taken over suburban hospitals in an effort to capture market share in population-rich areas to justify the expansive facilities and highly-specialized services they often acquire, a process that some argue gives institutions “disproportionate clout in setting health care premiums with insurers.”

The article stated Mayo needs to draw patients from beyond Minnesota, putting its international goals and local responsibilities at odds and discussed controversies surrounding the approach Mayo has undertaken at the state level, such as its threats to leave unless lawmakers approved $585 million in funding for Destination Medical Center, as well as the hospital system’s choice to not accept veterans using the Veterans Choice program.

Mayo Clinic said its decision to not serve veterans through Veterans Choice is similar to other health care providers across the country and is because of the “significant administrative burden and necessary staff increase to meet the requirements of this VA pilot program.”

Mayo is reportedly working with policy makers to improve the program and still serves thousands of veterans, providing care through commercial and government insurance programs.

The publication gathered extensive feedback from state and federal lawmakers and published leaked comments made by Mayo Clinic CEO John Noseworthy in 2016 stating the hospital should prioritize commercial insurance patients over those who use Medicare or Medicaid.

The article discussed high prices at the hospital system and the effect that has had for shoppers on the Affordable Care Act exchange in southeast Minnesota, where Politico stated, “Mayo’s near-monopoly has led to the most expensive insurance rates in the state.”

Mayo has stated the high prices are necessary to subside its high-quality care.

Lynne sad she is “120 percent confident in our mission,” as it relates to Albert Lea taking back a full-service, acute-care hospital. She hopes the hospital re-evaluates the transition and said a better idea of the route Save Our Hospital will take will be formed after the results of the feasibility study by Quorum Health Services LLC. is completed.

Plumbo said national attention from the article will not change the health system’s plans for the transition or entice it to sell the hospital to another provider.

“It does not change our need to evolve and respond to the changing health care environment,” she said. “And, no, it does not change our commitment to Albert Lea and all of the communities we serve.”

In addition to Mayo’s commitment to patients and employees, the hospital system is “firmly committed to the people and economic well-being of Albert Lea,” Plumbo said.

“We take very seriously our responsibilities as the community’s largest employer and long-time partner for health.”

About Sam Wilmes

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

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