A hearing in Anoka County District Court on Monday clarified that the North Suburban Hospital District is not dissolving just yet — buying time for advocates who want to use the district’s authority to fight changes by Allina Health to Unity Hospital in Fridley.
The hospital district board, created in the 1960s to build and support Unity as a general hospital for the surrounding communities, voted Sept. 14 to pursue dissolution. But its representatives said at Monday’s hearing that the vote was only a first step.
“They said they only voted to express their intent to dissolve,” said attorney Mike Hatch, the former Minnesota attorney general representing the opposition group in a lawsuit.
All sides agreed — without a judge’s ruling — that the board can’t dissolve until the idea has been presented in a petition by residents of Fridley, Blaine, Mounds View, Spring Lake Park or Hilltop, who pay $1.7 million each year in taxes to the district.
Allina, which now operates Unity, started making changes at the hospital last year with the closure of its labor and delivery unit and plans to make it a regional provider of inpatient mental health services. Allina also is forfeiting Unity’s license as a hospital and making it an auxiliary campus to Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids as of 2017.
District officials argued that this move forced the board to dissolve, because its statutory purpose was to support Unity as a free-standing hospital. The board’s role with Unity has downshifted over time to that of a landlord that collects tax revenue to fund hospital renovations.
Allina has the option to buy Unity from the board for $1, said Joan Quade, an attorney for the board. Once that happens, the board no longer has a public purpose, she said, and would need to dissolve and decide what to do with any unspent tax dollars.
The opposition group includes three people seeking election Nov. 8 to the six-member board. Their platform is to use the board’s leverage to resist Allina’s changes and maintain Unity as a community hospital — though Quade said the board no longer has that kind of authority. A union representing a variety of workers at Unity, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, has contributed $600 to each candidate’s campaign.
Hatch’s involvement is an intriguing subplot. The former attorney general is a familiar antagonist to Allina, having raised conflict-of-interest concerns in 2001 that ultimately led to the split of its health insurance business from its hospital and clinic business.