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Mayo officials explain, defend Albert Lea decision

Mayo Clinic Health System announced Monday that it will transition inpatient hospital services from Albert Lea, above, to Austin over the next three years.

Faced with mounting criticism , Mayo Clinic leaders on Monday stood by their decision not to involve the Albert Lea community during the clinic's 18-month study that has resulted in the planned consolidation of most inpatient services at its Austin campus.

Nearly two months after Mayo issued a June 12 press release announcing the change, Mark Ciota, CEO of Mayo Clinic Health System-Austin and Albert Lea, told the Post Bulletin editorial board that it "would have caused an undue amount of stress and anxiety if we had gone around and said (we were) thinking about closing" certain departments as part of Mayo's optimization efforts. Ciota said such a disclosure could have negatively impacted employees and patients until final decisions were made.

Mayo Clinic vice president and MCHS leader Bobbie Gostout agreed with Ciota's assessment, while also pointing to more concrete examples why the consolidation was deemed necessary. She said MCHS, as a whole, lost money in 2016 for the first time in its 25-year history. Additionally, more than 100 jobs across the system have gone unfilled for more than a year due to lack of applicants as the nation's rural health care crisis continues to impact southern Minnesota.

While citizens and elected officials have criticized Mayo's lack of public communication throughout the planning stages — including Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams telling First District Congressman Tim Walz, DFL-Mankato, that it "blindsided" the community — Mayo spokeswoman Ginger Plumbo said the optimization plans had been communicated to staff "in broad terms" during the extensive planning process.

"Believe me, I've got beat up about that question and I don't know how I would do it different," Ciota said when asked about criticism of Mayo's communication.


Airing issues

Gostout said earlier discussions with the community about potential changes would have been "unnecessarily disruptive." However, she did concede that Mayo could have done a better job explaining the issues at hand, such as a 50 percent decrease of inpatient care over the last decade, and she has vowed to do better moving forward.

"It's fair to say, in retrospect, we could have talked to the community about the problems we're solving," Gostout said.

Ciota also pointed to MCHS's union contracts as another hurdle that discouraged early public dialogue. He said Mayo was operating under "some very strict union and labor relation rules and laws" that required notifying unions first.

"(We were) trying not to notify one group before another and cause hysteria," Ciota said. "We did it internally to a certain point and then made the announcement."

Minnesota Nurses Association spokesman Rick Fuentes challenged Ciota on that point.

"There's nothing in the contract that precludes this employer from notifying the community in advance of possible adverse changes — not before or after," Fuentes said. "The assertion that Mayo was precluded from notifying the Albert Lea community because of the nurses' contract is false."

Fuentes continued: "It's ridiculous to think that any employer, Mayo or otherwise, would agree to a contract that precluded them from communicating with the public on jobs gained or lost. Mayo needs to be completely transparent with the communities of Albert Lea and Austin on how these changes will affect patient care."


Many critics

Mayo has faced previous criticism for its lack of communication from the Albert Lea School Board, Albert Lea City Council and Freeborn County Board, which all passed unanimous resolutions opposing Mayo's consolidation plans.

First District Congressman Tim Walz, DFL-Mankato, and Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, have joined the criticism in recent weeks, with Sparks accusing Mayo on Friday of "going back on its word."

In an unusual show of bipartisan agreement, the Freeborn County GOP and the Freeborn County DFL have both issued statements this month supporting the grassroots effort of "Save Our Hospital" to maintain a full-service hospital in Albert Lea.

Paul Overgaard, 87, a former three-time Republican state representative, told Walz last week that Mayo's consolidation plans have united the Albert Lea community across social and political boundaries unlike anything since World War II. Hundreds of Save Our Hospital members are expected to attend a rally outside Mayo's Rochester campus this afternoon, with buses bringing people in from Austin and Albert Lea.

Despite that criticism, Ciota and Gostout both reaffirmed Mayo's intention to move forward with consolidation plans out of financial necessity. Plumbo said MCHS lost $14 million in 2016, while Mayo's Austin and Albert Lea combined campuses lost nearly $13 million over the previous two years.

"As I read some of the things written about this, there is sort of an implied frame of mind that the community and elected officials should have been given the opportunity to give us permission to do this — almost as if we should have let them weigh into the running of our business," Gostout said. "Which obviously is not true, but to listen to their voice along the way, I think that's a very important thing.

"If we hear a novel and new idea and there is a solution that would decrease the stress in the community, we want it," she said. "I can say that there has been an awful lot of exploring of options and I don't know that it's realistic to hold out for an alternate pathway out there."

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