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Mayo Clinic regional leader steps down

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Witt
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RED WING — Mayo Clinic announced Tuesday that Dr. Tom Witt, a transformational figure in Mayo's Goodhue County health care facilities, would "transition out of his leadership role" in early 2017.

Mayo has clarified that Witt's reassignment was "part of rotational leadership." He has served as president and CEO of Mayo Clinic Health System-Cannon Falls/Lake City/Red Wing since 2012, and he previously was president and CEO at the Lake City hospital from 2003-2012.

His departure comes at a time of concern in some area communities served by Mayo. Hospitals in Lake City and Wabasha have had four doctors and two nurse practitioners, among other staff, resign this year amidst a public backlash over reduced medical services and policy changes, such as Mayo discontinuing baby deliveries at those two sites while consolidating services in Red Wing.

Chad Springer, Wabasha's city administrator and a former Mayo employee, says local health care employees feel "very insecure" and he has heard MCHS hasn't been meeting patient and financial expectations.

"The way things were handled were not in these communities' best interests and these physicians' best interests," he said of recent decisions. "That's why you're seeing these communities upset and rallying."

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Witt was not made available for comment, but Mayo spokeswoman Asia Zmuda rejected Springer's criticism, noting that Witt's transition is "consistent with how Mayo rotates leaders across practices."

"It's a huge stretch and highly speculative for someone to try to make a connection that (those concerns have) something to do with this transition," Zmuda said.

Mayo officials were complimentary of Witt in the news release and said he will continue in patient care, plus "coordinating and integrating health system hospitals across the Southeast Minnesota region."

"We are grateful for the many years of excellent patient care and strong leadership Dr. Witt has provided to this area," said Dr. David Agerter, regional vice president of Mayo Clinic Health System, in the statement. "He has led many important initiatives during his tenure, including the construction and launch of the beautiful new medical center in Cannon Falls. We are very pleased that he will continue to lead our hospital integration work and will be providing expert care for our patients."

Dr. Brian Whited will assume Witt's duties at the end of February, the statement said. Whited, who is currently vice president of operations for Mayo Clinic Health System, was not quoted in the release or made available for comment.

Time of transition

Witt's departure comes amid an important transition for Mayo Clinic in Goodhue and Wabasha counties.

His role expanded in 2012 when Mayo Clinic acquired Red Wing's Fairview hospital for $64 million, further expanding Mayo's reach outside of its base in Rochester. At the time, it was Mayo's 13th medical center in Minnesota and it quickly became its hub of operations between Rochester and the Twin Cities.

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Witt also was a central figure in Mayo's plan to build a new $28 million clinic and hospital in Cannon Falls, which included about $10 million from the city. The 92,000-square-foot facility broke ground in 2013 and opened to the public in July 2014 to much fanfare, including a visit from Mayo President and CEO Dr. John Noseworthy. Its location just off U.S. Highway 52 was touted as an ideal location while replacing the aging health center downtown.

"The benefits of the new medical center go beyond the continued presence of dependable, high-quality health care," Witt said last summer . "As we commemorate this first year of being in the new building, we look forward to serving the needs of our patients — and the community — for many years to come."

Questions and criticism

The new facilities haven't prevented a steady stream of criticism in some communities over the past two years.

Some residents in Lake City and Wabasha cried fouled when Mayo ended baby delivery services in June 2015. Mayo said it was centralizing those services at its Red Wing facility due to reduced regional demand, but it created a public backlash . More recently, Lake City residents have raised concerns about resignations at Mayo's Lake City hospital. Some have questioned Mayo's new care model, opposed Mayo's request to terminate its 30-year contract with Lake City 10 years early, and balked at the creation of a regional governance board.

Phil Gartner, Lake City's former city attorney who drafted the 1998 contract with Mayo, secured a seat on the city council last month after publicly criticizing Mayo's plans and pending polic y changes. Though Mayo has challenged his criticism, Gartner earned the most votes in the Nov. 8 election.

"I think there's conflicting best interest," Lake City City Council member Russell Boe has said. "In this case, what's best for Lake City isn't what's best for Mayo Clinic."

Wabasha officials also haven't been shy about pointing out the reductions in rural health care began shortly after the state approved $585 million in public funding to support Mayo's Destination Medical Center initiative in Rochester.

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"The state — us, basically — has put a lot of money in DMC," Springer said. "At the 30,000-foot level, that sounds like a good concept … but the impact it's had on the rural area of Wabasha, Lake City, Owatonna and elsewhere by taking things away from us and rationing our health care … it's making it difficult for people to have their own autonomy in health care choices."

Zmuda rejected that criticism, saying the issues are "totally unrelated."

Additionally, Cannon Falls residents have repeatedly criticized the new U.S. 52 interchange. Minnesota Department of Transportation funded the $14.3 million project to improve safety by removing the final two stop lights between Rochester and the Twin Cities. The interchange created easy access to Mayo's new medical center, but some — including Cannon Falls Mayor Robby Robinson — have said it has badly hurt nearby businesses.

Wabasha's quiet revolt

Wabasha city officials have been plotting a revolution behind the scenes for almost a year.

It began when city leaders, including Mayor Rollin Hall, created a Rural Health Care Task Force on Jan. 1 to address ongoing concerns directly with Mayo about changes at St. Elizabeth's Medical Center. The group's aggressive actions include holding meetings with U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, and getting a letter placed directly on Noseworthy's desk in February.

The Wabasha Port Authority, led by Dave Wodele, identified "preserving rural health care" as its top priority in 2016 — and the task force sent increasing pointed letters to Mayo leadership throughout the year to address that concern.

The concerns about Mayo's reduction of local care — including baby delivery, laboratory services, emergency room and hospital physician coverage — have progressed to the point where Springer says city officials have been in contact with other health care providers to solicit interest. He declined to name names, but claims to have found significant interest. That could create an unusual situation where two providers are working under the same roof.

As a sign of intentions, Wabasha has also requested that Mayo release its recently resigned employees from the typical one-year noncompete clause. One physician in Wabasha resigned this month and a nurse practitioner has submitted her resignation, effective next month. Springer says some of the departed medical professionals have expressed an interest in returning to work if a new provider comes to Wabasha, but Mayo has refused that request.

Mayo invested $3.8 million at St. Elizabeth's in 2000 as part of a 15-year agreement. The reduction of services began shortly after that agreement expired, which rankled some locals who have raised nearly $15 million to support the medical center over the last 15 years.

"There's great things on the horizon," Springer said Wednesday. "It's no secret that health care costs in Southeast Minnesota are darn near double the metro area and we all know what the driver is there — the Mayo Clinic.

"Mayo Clinic does not see eye-to-eye with the future of St. Elizabeth's Medical Center and the city of Wabasha. We feel that us, as city officials, can right the future of health care" in Wabasha.

Mayo did not make officials available for comment on the ongoing Wabasha dialogue, but Bobbie Gostout, Mayo Clinic Health System vice president, rejected the criticism in a June 17 letter to the city.

"We feel confident that all of the public benefits that the City and County documented in the Development Agreement have been realized to the general public benefit of the City and County," Gostout wrote. "We have great respect for the City of Wabasha, Wabasha County and St. Elizabeth's. While we very much want to maintain and continue to build our strong working relationship with the City of Wabasha and Wabasha County, we feel that our discussions with St. Elizabeth's should continue to be direct communications."

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Chad Springer

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