County backs out of facilitated dialogue with Mayo Clinic

Published 10:04 pm Monday, September 17, 2018

Freeborn County withdrew last week from facilitated dialogue sessions with Mayo Clinic and the city of Albert Lea to discuss the hospital system’s planned transition of most inpatient services to Austin.

“There are several factors and dynamics that have come into play over the past few weeks that have been discussed by the Board of Commissioners at great length,” said Administrator Thomas Jensen Wednesday in an email to Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams, Mayo Clinic Director of Government Relations Erin Sexton and retired judge and former state Rep. David Minge, who aimed to bridge the communication gap between the government bodies and Mayo. “These dynamics have had a very negative impact on the board’s opinion of this process and are the foremost reason for decision to withdraw from any further dialogue.”

Jensen said Mayo Clinic officials only contacted Freeborn County late in the day Aug. 15 to inform the county the health system planned to make an $11.2 million investment into a new third-floor family birthing center and a two-story connecting link between the main clinic entrance and the hospital on its Austin campus, only one day before it was publicly announced and without enough time for Jensen to inform commissioners. 

“I was not able to give that to the commissioners … they were very disappointed in the lack of communication by Mayo Clinic because that is the one issue that has been brought to the forefront, is the lack of communication that the Mayo Clinic Health Systems has had since day one of the transition,” he said. “And it just reinforced with the board that they’re still not getting any movement towards better communication.

“That added another incident of mistrust from the Board of Commissioners with regards to how Mayo was handling their commitment to be open and communicate and be transparent in what was going on.”

Kristin Johnson, associate administrator for Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin, said the hospital system is “definitely making a concerted effort to communicate.”

She said plans for the birthing center were essentially updated information from what was announced one year ago. 

She said the hospital system tried to communicate the news as quickly as possible to government entities.

“I know it doesn’t give them a lot of time,” Johnson said.

Jensen said the hospital system has made no concessions following facilitated dialogue sessions and rebuffed commissioner requests to bring back at least some inpatient services to Albert Lea.

“That is not going to happen,” he said, adding commissioners do not believe investments at the Albert Lea hospital equal those made in Austin.

“(Mayo Clinic Health System) made comments about how much money they’ve put into Albert Lea,” Jensen said. “In the board’s eyes it doesn’t equate.”

Jensen said commissioners plan to act within their authority as a community health board Tuesday with guidance from Freeborn County Attorney David Walker. Walker declined to comment Monday about the advice he would provide.

“It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to share that in advance,” he said.

The board unsuccessfully requested Mayo attend the Aug. 21 meeting to answer questions regarding the transition.

“On or about that Friday or Monday, I was informed by Mayo Clinic that they were unable to, due to schedules, have anybody present,” Jensen said.

Board Chairman Chris Shoff said during the meeting that Mayo should have been able to find at least one employee to attend the meeting.

Commissioners later became aware that Mayo had a representative at the board meeting but did not convey that to the board.

“The Board of Commissioners as a whole, they felt spied upon, honestly,” Jensen said. “They felt that there was someone representing Mayo Clinic. They didn’t identify themselves; they didn’t announce themselves.”

Johnson said hospital officials “felt bad that we weren’t able to attend the meeting on short notice,” adding scheduling such appointments can be difficult due to physician schedules.

She said the employee who attended the meeting was a new employee who wanted to see how such meetings operated.

“It was completely innocent, and no harm intended,” Johnson said.

“It’s just that simple.”

Sumit Bhagra, medical director of Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin, and Johnson presented an update on the transition of services and answered questions from commissioners during a Sept. 4 meeting.

Jensen said the hospital system did not respond to county inquiries into whether it could share resources with the county to operate the Freeborn County Mental Health Center, including possibly housing some patients or sharing space.

“The commissioners feel that it is a very one-sided relationship,” he said.

Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams said approximately eight facilitated dialogue sessions have taken place. Subcommittees featuring city, county and Mayo officials have since formed to cover topics ranging from behavioral health, community engagement and communications to economic development and transportation.

Adams said though he understands Freeborn County’s reasoning in ending its involvement in facilitated dialogue, the city plans to continue in the process. He said facilitated dialogue sessions have become a way to update subcommittee work.

“There’s still some topics that we’d like to chat with them about,” he said.

Adams said Mayo hired a new community engagement professional who covers Albert Lea and another employee now covers southeast Minnesota.

Johnson said Mayo plans to continue working with the city.

“We’re disappointed that the county has decided to pull back,” she said.

About Sam Wilmes

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

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