My Point of View: We must keep advocating for mothers, all patients

Published 8:45 pm Tuesday, November 14, 2023

My Point of View by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

As Mayo Clinic demolished the well-built and architecturally significant 1911 Naeve Hospital last week, I was reminded again of how Mayo has taken apart our vital health care services, piece by piece.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

The hardest blow for me was when Mayo closed the Baby Place four years ago, because that is where my children were born. It was still in beautiful condition, and it was a well-utilized rural labor and delivery unit, despite how Mayo leaders minimized it.

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I don’t have the economic numbers to analyze how much money Albert Lea has lost due to not having OB services available (except in the ED under less than ideal circumstances), but I doubt it has been compensated for by the services that Mayo promised to build up here. For example, Dr. Bobbie Gostout told the Freeborn County commissioners in 2017, “Outpatient surgery is the future. That’s where things are going, and we’re positioning [Mayo Clinic Health System-Albert Lea] for strength.”

This hasn’t materialized yet.

I do have birth data to compare to other hospitals. In 2016, there were 361 births at Albert Lea’s hospital, give or take one or two. Birth numbers in a rural hospital like Albert Lea’s should be compared against other rural hospitals, not averages which include large urban hospitals. Mayo favored using averages which included Metro-area hospitals to obscure the importance of Albert Lea’s well-used rural service and justify closing it.

Most news organizations did little to question Mayo’s framing, much less provide an appropriate rural context for Albert Lea’s numbers.

Here is the rural context that was missing: When Mayo Clinic shut down Albert Lea’s birthing unit in 2019, it was still the busiest rural OB unit in Minnesota, by far, to be shut down compared to other rural OB units that were closing. Wabasha’s hospital was the closest to Albert Lea — averaging 76 births a year in its last five full years of operation. Albert Lea was averaging over 350 births a year in its last five full years.

350 versus 76.

That means Albert Lea’s award-winning Baby Place was delivering more than four times as many babies a year as the next biggest rural OB unit to be shut down.

Mayo didn’t close Albert Lea’s Baby Place because of low births, it nixed the Baby Place for the benefit of its bottom line in Rochester. Rather than providing better service to our mothers and babies, Mayo Clinic has placed a greater burden upon them in a myriad of ways.

Mayo Clinic’s decision also opened the door for Allina Health to close two medium-sized rural OB units last year in Cambridge and Hastings, with the expectation that women would travel to two of Allina’s Metro-area hospitals instead. Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids is 30 miles south of Cambridge, and St. Paul’s United Hospital is 24 miles from Hastings.

This is an alarming trend, and legislators and state health officials should be responding to protect existing OB services, especially where consolidation is happening. If Albert Lea’s hospital had never been sold to Mayo Clinic for $1, it would likely still be operating one of the larger rural OB units in the state.

If I learned anything from the fight to save Albert Lea’s Baby Place, it’s that we have to keep advocating for our mothers (and all of our other patients) and demand that our elected leaders keep them on the legislative agenda, not let Mayo define our expectations downward.

Democrats are usually more amenable to helping people against large business interests, but I’m still waiting for Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who wrote a hefty book called “Antitrust,” to say anything critical about Mayo’s health care monopoly in southeast Minnesota. I want Klobuchar to put her mouth where her book is and get out front with Sen. Tina Smith on this. We need them both in our corner.

Here’s what else we can do: hang on to local decision-making as much as possible. It’s crucial for vital public services, and it’s important for local industries and businesses as well. Buy local from locally-owned businesses as much as you can, all year round. It really does make a difference.

One thing that could help rural communities facing the consolidation of their health care services by large health care systems is a Public Health Commission, which the DFL has proposed. People should have a say in their vital health care services, and no system should be so powerful that it can ignore the people it is supposed to serve. Albert Lea could have benefited from something like this in 2017.

What if Mayo had had to get approval from a state commission before removing Albert Lea’s inpatient hospital services? We might still be hearing chimes in the clinic for births, as we rightly should.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.