'We're going to fight for it'
Thursday's protest marks the latest escalation of a controversial decision that Mayo says was necessary due to staffing limitations, reduced patient demand and financial concerns, similar to what's occurring throughout the nation in rural healthcare.
Dave Mullenbach felt right at home in his red-and-white garb Thursday afternoon in downtown Rochester.
Mullenbach traded in his trademark Santa Claus outfit, which he's donned for the past quarter century as a holiday staple in Albert Lea, for a new Save Our Hospital shirt and hat. He was the first of nearly 150 to arrive as buses of agitated citizens gathered to protest Mayo Clinic's plans to consolidate most inpatient services from Albert Lea to Austin.
The bearded 73-year-old has played a critical role in the rise of Save Our Hospital since Mayo's June 12 announcement. As the former American Legion commander in Albert Lea, he opens the Legion doors every Sunday night for the group to strategize. Most meetings are standing-room-only as resistance to Mayo's plan has intensified.
Mullenbach was among the most vocal chanters as the group slowly circled Mayo's Rochester campus, holding signs aloft as many used canes, walkers or wheelchairs to make the one-mile trek. One of the most popular chants was "M-A-Y-O, give us back our hospital."
"We're going to fight for it," Mullenbach said. "If nothing else, give it back to us and we'll find another provider."
Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams, who did not attend the protest, says the city's been "actively engaged" with nine other health care providers. He said Mayo leadership is scheduled to meet with stakeholders twice next week in Albert Lea, which he called "really the first sit down meeting we're going to have … to ask about implementation and what is happening."
Thursday's protest marks the latest escalation of a controversial decision that Mayo says was necessary due to staffing limitations, reduced patient demand and financial concerns, similar to what's occurring throughout the nation in rural healthcare. Mayo officials have said the combined Austin and Albert Lea campuses lost nearly $13 million over the past two years. Additionally, Mayo Clinic Health System lost money — about $14 million — in 2016 for the first time in its 25-year history.
Mayo, which owns the Albert Lea campus, has repeatedly said it plans to move forward, including again Monday when Mark Ciota, CEO of MCHS-Albert Lea and Austin, told the Post Bulletin that the consolidation plans are "a vision we have not had a chance to realize yet."
Resistance unifies Albert Lea
Mayo's decision to consolidate campuses was made after an 18-month internal study. However, elected officials have said the move "blindsided" them due to lack of discussion or disclosure.
Citizens have since rallied around the Save Our Hospital movement.
Hundreds of shirts have been distributed and more than 1,000 yard signs have popped up throughout Freeborn County, with support from the Minnesota Nurses Association and SEIU. Those efforts have drawn support from Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, and Congressman Tim Walz, DFL-Mankato, who had a representative at Thursday's rally, and both political parties in Freeborn County.
"We have a lot of passion … and we need to protect our vulnerable citizens," said Jen Vogt-Erickson, a Save Our Hospital leader who noted that 22 percent of Albert Lea residents are senior citizens.
Freeborn County Attorney David Walker has also contacted Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson about anti-trust and monopoly concerns related to Mayo's decision. Walker said Thursday that Swanson has assigned an assistant to "look into it" and that she's vowed to "leave no stone unturned." Additionally, he's asked Walz to raise similar questions with the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice.
City and county officials have also been critical of Mayo's decision, though none attended Thursday's protest.
"There's a sign in every yard," Freeborn County interim administrator Kelly Callahan said. "I'm not sure what good that will do in the long run, but it's certainly unified Albert Lea.
"I think Mayo has handled the PR piece pretty poorly and I've told them that. If they would have rolled it out rather than just dropping this on our heads and then trying to justify it after the fact, I think that might have made a difference."
Mayo pushes back
Mayo officials have repeatedly pushed back against Save Our Hospital criticism, saying it's inaccurate and has created unfounded fears. Spokeswoman Ginger Plumbo reiterated that message after the protest, noting Mayo has actually created a website to debunk rumors aimed at correcting phrases such as "life threatening" and "economically devastating."
"We respect and appreciate the right of community members to voice their opinions," Plumbo said via email. "But we are disappointed by the fear and misinformation being spread by some members of the Save Our Hospital group."
Plumbo continued: "The challenges being faced in rural health care are real. While our solutions to those challenges may differ, our purpose for finding those solutions is real: doing what's best for patients and their communities."
Mayo has repeatedly said it expects employment numbers to remain largely unchanged, but citizens remain skeptical. Dale Haukoos said his wife, who has worked nearly 20 years in Albert Lea's intensive-care unit, still has not heard any details about her future when that department closes Oct. 1.
Testy exchange between Noseworthy, Walz
After the protest, Mayo President and CEO John Noseworthy issued a response to criticism from Walz after his July 31 to Albert Lea to meet with both sides. Noseworthy said Mayo "regrets the distress this has caused," noting he remains committed to ensuring Albert Lea has a "vibrant medical center."
He also asked for Walz's assistance to address a national issue.
"As we work through this transition, it is my hope that as our Representative in the U.S. Congress, you will work on long-term solutions, such as increasing rural residency training programs," Noseworthy wrote. "But most importantly, Congressman, we need you to speak out now about rural health care challenges and the difficult and necessary changes that we must face together in order to sustain high-quality health care in Albert Lea, Austin and all the rural communities you represent."
Walz, who is running for governor, wasn't exactly thrilled to read Noseworthy's letter after completing an event in Duluth.
"Ironically, the day Congressman Walz received this letter asking he work to improve access to rural health care was the same day the House Committee on Veterans Affairs Committee held a field hearing in Minnesota to better discuss how veterans can access rural health care," Sara Severs, Walz's deputy chief of staff, said via email Thursday night. "The Mayo Clinic was invited and declined to participate.
"Dr. Noseworthy has suggested worthy long-term solutions to problems in rural health care. However, in the short-term, Mayo has a responsibility to their community partners to engage in dialogue and not just look at their bottom line."