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Eminent domain discussed as way to keep health services in Albert Lea

A Hamline University political science professor said local government entities can likely legally use eminent domain to stop Mayo Clinic Health System’s planned transition of most inpatient services from Albert Lea to Austin.

Hamline professor David Schultz discussed eminent domain — the government taking private property for a public use — at the bimonthly Albert Lea-Save Our Hospital meeting on Feb. 18.

The government would be responsible for paying just compensation for the property and would need to have a valid public use, guidelines Schultz said are “incredibly broad.”

Schultz said using eminent domain to acquire the hospital so most inpatient services remain in the community “is clearly a valid public use,” especially because the hospital is the only one in Freeborn County.

“You’re not going to get a single judge in the state of Minnesota to second guess you on that one,” he said. 

Freeborn County commissioners Tuesday requested Freeborn County Attorney David Walker look into the possibility of the county using eminent domain.

“It’s something that needs to be talked about,” said District 4 Commissioner Chris Shoff.

“I support giving it to the county attorney and listening to what he says about it,” said District 2 Commissioner Dan Belshan.

Commissioners plan to discuss eminent domain Tuesday at a workshop.

Walker said as of Wednesday, there were no specific proposals to implement eminent domain.

“This strikes me as an extraordinary situation for eminent domain to come up,” he said. “Here you have an internationally-renowned health system that is managing their hospitals, and it’s a question of how they allocate resources generally between the various campuses.

“It’s an extraordinary situation for a government to enter in and take part of the business away from them, to take a building away from them or to take one of the hospital campuses away from them to manage it differently or theoretically give it to a third party to manage it differently.”

To clear funding hurdles in association with using eminent domain, Schultz said bonding and tax increases could be implemented.

He said the city could acquire the hospital and sign a lease agreement with a private vendor, possibly helping pay off the bond.

If local government entities can follow the proper conditions to use eminent domain, Schultz said, “I really don’t see any, any legal impacts, legal problems from you being able to do that.”

He said by acquiring the hospital, local government entities could acquire doctors employed by the hospital system.

Statements made by Mayo Clinic Health System that the Albert Lea hospital is not profitable enough to have a full-service, acute-care operation could help government entities if they decided to use eminent domain, Schultz said, because that could mean the property would have a lower assessed value. 

A community-owned hospital reportedly does not have to operate with the same profit margins as private hospitals, Schultz said, citing Regions Hospital in St. Paul and Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis as public medical centers in operation in the Twin Cities area.

Though acknowledging most hospital transitions involve shifting from public to private facilities, Schultz said it is possible for such facilities to transition to public facilities.

In a statement Friday, Mayo Clinic Health System spokeswoman Mandie Siems said the hospital system “is committed to continuing its role as the community’s long-time health care provider and Freeborn County’s largest employer.

“Our leaders and staff are focused on continuing to provide great care for our patients in Albert Lea, Austin and the surrounding area,” she said. “Together with city and county leaders, we are building for the future of health care.”

Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams said the city is not as confident it can use eminent domain.

“I don’t think we and our municipal attorney probably thinks it’s that strong, but it does show or demonstrate the power of eminent domain,” he said.

Save Our Hospital members Tuesday presented commissioners two resolutions, one calling for the Legislature to revisit Destination Medical Center funding, while the other called for the Legislature to empower community health boards to prevent decisions such as Mayo’s unfolding transition, unless it is agreed upon by a community health board.

Save Our Hospital member Paul Overgaard acknowledged attempts to look into DMC funding “probably doesn’t stand a whole lot of chance of the Legislature acting on it, but it would get Mayo’s attention.”

About Sam Wilmes

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

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