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AG's review of Mayo's Albert Lea consolidation focuses on nonprofit laws

ALBERT LEA — Mayo Clinic Health System’s plan to shift most inpatient services from its Albert Lea campus to its Austin location does not appear to violate anti-trust laws, according to Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson.

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Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea.
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ALBERT LEA — Mayo Clinic Health System's plan to shift most inpatient services from its Albert Lea campus to its Austin location does not appear to violate anti-trust laws, according to Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson.

During an interview Monday with the Post Bulletin, Swanson said her staff spent several weeks looking into possible anti-trust violations but concluded there is no evidence such laws were broken.

"We don't see any anti-trust remedy," Swanson said.

However, her office is reviewing whether the consolidation plan might violate state laws governing nonprofits. That includes examining how the decision to move services was made and how money donated specifically to the Albert Lea campus has been used.

"Questions had been asked of whether there was money raised in the Albert Lea community for the benefit of Albert Lea that might have been diverted to another community," she said.

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Swanson has given Mayo until Aug. 30 to answer several questions related to the Albert Lea hospital. Dr. Annie Sadosty, regional vice president for Mayo Clinic Health System in Southeast Minnesota, said a team of people is working on getting answers to Swanson's questions.

"I can say we're confident that we have acted in accordance with the current bylaws that govern Mayo Clinic Health System's Austin-Albert Lea hospital and the applicable laws and regulations," Sadosty said.

In June, Mayo Clinic Health System announced it would be moving most inpatient hospital services, including ICU, inpatient surgeries and childbirth, from Albert Lea to Austin. That drew a strong response from the Albert Lea community, with hundreds turning out for a public meeting to voice opposition to the plan. In recent days, Mayo's plan has received increased statewide scrutiny.

On Monday, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Lt. Gov. Tina Smith issued a joint statement expressing "serious concerns" about Mayo's plan and calling on the clinic "to engage the public in an open discussion about the impact of its business decisions on people." Meanwhile, Swanson spent two hours on Monday meeting with Albert Lea and Freeborn County officials about their concerns with the consolidation plan. Also attending on behalf of the Dayton administration were Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger and representatives from the state's departments of commerce and human services.

Mayo highlights Albert Lea upgrades

At the same time the attorney general was meeting with local officials, Mayo Clinic Health System issued a press release touting millions of dollars in planned upgrades to the Albert Lea campus. They include $720,000 to upgrade Albert Lea's Cancer Center, $2.75 million for a cooling plant and $600,000 for a new state-of-the-art CT scanner.

Sadosty said those investments show that Mayo is committed to the Albert Lea campus. In addition, she said efforts are being made to address community concerns. That includes working with the city of Albert Lea to establish a community stakeholder group, comprised of representatives from Albert Lea, Freeborn County and Mayo.

The health system has also decided to add short stay observation beds to the Albert Lea hospital in response to community concerns about having to travel to Austin for short visits. And while Mayo still plans to push ahead with moving Albert Lea's Intensive Care Unit to Austin on Oct. 1, it will no longer move all inpatient surgeries on Jan. 1, 2018 as scheduled. Major surgeries requiring an ICU backup will move on that date but others will gradually transition over to the Austin campus.

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"Where we can slow down, we are slowing down in response to the feedback from the community with the idea that the community can help improve upon the very thoughtful plans we've laid out," Sadosty said.

'More consideration is necessary'

But critics of Mayo's plan are unmoved. Mariah Lynne, co-founder of Save Our Hospital, said residents are not willing to lose those inpatient services.

"We have a single mission, and our mission for Save Our Hospital is to maintain a full service, acute hospital in Albert Lea, Minn., for the benefit of our citizens and our surrounding citizens," Lynne said.

She added that her group has talked with other health care companies interested in providing a full-service hospital in Albert Lea. Save Our Hospital wants Mayo to give the hospital back to the Albert Lea community if they are unwilling to keep all inpatient services on site.

"I am happy that they are considering the impact now of the decisions that they made. However, more consideration is necessary. We are in a situation where I believe what we are seeing is Mayo trying to appease the community," she said.

Sadosty said she recognizes how difficult the planned changes are for the community. But she said Mayo has to take action in order to ensure quality care for residents into the future. She said hospitals are facing major challenges, including difficulty recruiting staff, advances in technology and a drop in inpatient admissions — just to name a few.

"There are significant changes afoot in health care and a failure to adjust could result in the closure of medical centers, and that's happening all over the country," she said.

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'An extraordinary step'

As for today's meeting with the attorney general, Freeborn County David Walker said he was pleased with how it went. Walker contacted Swanson last month and asked her to review the consolidation plan to see if it violated any state or federal laws.

"I think it is an extraordinary step for the attorney general and state officers to take to come to the city of Albert Lea to address some specific issue affecting the city of Albert Lea and Freeborn County," Walker said.

Swanson said she does not have a timeline for when she expects to have reached a conclusion on the consolidation plan. She said it will depend on how much material Mayo sends to her office and when they receive it. However, she said Monday's meeting was helpful.

"I thought it was a productive meeting, a constructive meeting," she said. "It is difficult for a small community to face this with their hospital, and so I appreciated the opportunity to hear directly from the city and county officials with their concerns."

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