AUSTIN — There are more questions than answers for employees affected by Mayo Health System's plan to consolidate its Austin and Albert Lea campuses.
"When it impacts you, it's personal and it's important and it matters," said Kathy Lehman, a nurse with the Albert Lea campus who is a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Nurses Association.
On Monday, Mayo Health System announced it would move most of its inpatient services from Albert Lea to Austin. That means patients will soon have to travel to Austin for major surgeries requiring hospitalization, overnight hospitalization, Intensive Care Unit stays, and for childbirth. Meanwhile, the inpatient behavioral health unit in Austin will be moved to Albert Lea. Mayo plans to spend $25 million on the consolidation, which is expected to be completed by 2020. The first major transition will happen in October, when Albert Lea's Intensive Care Unit is moved to Austin.
Meanwhile, outpatient care, which Mayo says accounts for 95 percent of the services offered, will remain on both campuses. Those services include the emergency room, outpatient surgeries, family practice medicine, prenatal care, pharmacies and labs.
Minnesota Nurses Association Austin spokesman Nick Nelson said the union was aware that management and administration had spent the past 18 months talking about ways to optimize the campuses' operations. But he said employees were caught off guard by the consolidation news.
"I don't think anyone expected that outcome. We were, for 18 months, unaware of the scope of what was being communicated to both our campuses," Nelson said.
Dr. Mark Ciota, CEO of Mayo Health System in Albert Lea and Austin, told reporters during a press conference on Tuesday that approximately 1,000 employees work at each site. Ultimately, he said about 30 to 50 jobs are expected to shift to the Austin campus. He said that, at this point, the health system does not expect there to be any layoffs, but he can't guarantee that.
"Our workforce is very dependent on our volume, so we can't predict the volume," he said.
Ciota said the plan is to give priority to current employees at one campus for jobs that open up at the other location.
But nurse union members still have plenty of questions. They want to know whether their members will be guaranteed jobs at the other campus. They are also concerned about whether they will get to keep their seniority when they move. MNA represents nurses at both campuses, but they are separate bargaining units.
"Would they add insult to injury and strip Albert Lea nurses of their seniority? We have expressed a desire that the two bargaining units' seniority lists be melded," Lehman said.
In a press release issued today, Mayo said the issue of seniority will be addressed in contract negotiations with the nurses unions.
"We are required to negotiate effects of this decision on MNA-represented nurses with the separate bargaining units in Albert Lea and Austin, so we cannot specifically speak to what will happen until those discussions have occurred," the statement reads. "Seniority will be one of the issues to be resolved."
A previously scheduled negotiation session for Albert Lea nurses' contract is slated for today. The current three-year contract expires at the end of the month. Employee forums are also planned at the campuses to answer questions.
A major concern for Nelson is how the consolidation will affect patient care.
"We're concerned because caring for patients is sometimes at capacity in Austin, and we don't know to what this expansion and renovation will include," Nelson said. "We haven't gotten any numbers as to how Austin will be accommodating both communities. We haven't heard any specifics."
Mayo Health System leaders insist that the consolidation will improve patient care in the long term by making it easier for the campuses to attract top-tier medical talent.
"It's tough in small town medicine these days. One of the things that has really changed is there is a national physician shortage. In some of the positions we are trying to recruit, there are 14 job openings for every one position available," said Dr. Bobbie Gostout, vice president of Mayo Clinic and leader of Mayo Clinic Health System.
One of the reasons attracting talent has become so difficult is due to a shift in generational values. Physicians coming out of medical school today place a higher value on work-life balance. They don't want to have to be on call every other day. By consolidating inpatient services at the Austin campuses, she said Mayo can offer these doctors the chance to practice at a rural clinic but only have to be on call once every five days.
"This is giving us our chance to recruit brilliant people to staff these medical centers in the future," Gostout said.
In addition, Gostout said she expects the move will allow the health system to offer a higher level of care, thanks to the concentration of services. Mayo could invest in technology at the campuses and there would be fewer transfers to Mayo Clinic in Rochester for more complicated cases.
Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, said in a statement that he understands the challenges rural health care facilities face, but he is concerned about Mayo's planned consolidation.
"I am very aware of the shortages of health care professionals across the state, but particularly in rural parts of Minnesota. That being said – the Albert Lea facility is the city's largest employer – and this decision by Mayo creates a lot of uncertainty for Albert Lea clinic employees. I want to assure residents in both Austin and Albert Lea that I'll be following this situation closely – because it's vital that area residents have close access to affordable, high quality health care
Employees say they remain in the dark about many of the plans details and will push for answers.
"It's a time crunch, and we we need to get a process figured out so that nurses who are able to move to where their job is going know what the process is," Lehman said.