Leaders of the elected board that built Unity Hospital in Fridley years ago are debating whether to dissolve as the Allina facility becomes less of a general hospital for local communities and more of a regional provider of mental health and other services.
But the debate has gotten caught up in Allina’s current nursing strike, with the Minnesota Nurses Association supporting three candidates for the board who want to hold the big health system more accountable.
The North Suburban Hospital District Board will meet Wednesday night to discuss dissolution, and whether to immediately halt its collection of roughly $2 million per year in taxes from Blaine, Fridley, Hilltop, Mounds View and Spring Lake Park.
While the board financed the construction of Unity as a community hospital in the 1960s, it now primarily serves as a landlord to the Allina Health organization, which runs the hospital, and as a distributor of taxpayer funds for capital-intensive expansion projects.
Allina’s growth and size are eclipsing one of the board’s core functions — to weigh pending projects at Unity and substantiate that they require taxpayer help, said Rosemary Esler, a former district board president who is seeking to return in November’s election.
“When you see [Allina’s] expansions taking place, you have a hard time making a case they could not afford to support Unity,” she said. “Times have changed. It’s no longer the case that when you need a new roof, the place to turn to is the hospital district.”
The proposal to dissolve comes despite one of the most lively elections in the board’s 50-year history.
In addition to Esler, three candidates are running a coordinated “Save Our Hospital” campaign against incumbents to increase oversight of Allina’s management and restructuring of Unity.
The candidates include two Allina employees and a former president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, which is engaged in a strike against Allina at Unity and four other hospitals. The three released a statement Monday accusing the board of trying to shut down to stop them from winning the election and forcing Allina to be more accountable.
“We don’t know what their intention was prior to us signing up to run for these positions,” said Linda Hamilton, the former MNA union president and a pediatric nurse, “but it looks darned suspicious.”
An attorney for the board, Scott Lepak, said talk of dissolving the hospital district emerged earlier this year after Allina decided to eliminate Unity’s license and make it an auxiliary campus to Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids.
The move has made Unity less of a general hospital serving the communities providing taxpayer funding to the hospital board. Allina halted baby deliveries at Unity last year, for example, and plans to move more of its mental health and chemical dependency services there.
Dissolving the hospital district would take time, Lepak said, so board members elected this November would have roles for at least a year as they dispersed the district’s cash and land assets.
Allina has had the option to acquire Unity since 1978 and could buy surrounding properties from the district, as well.
In the past, board funding provided crucial upgrades to Unity’s intensive care unit and emergency department, but Allina spokesman David Kanihan said funds from the district “are no longer central to operating the hospital.”
The district board is meeting at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in Unity’s classroom B.
Esler said she hopes the board remains intact. While it no longer has a direct role in hospital operations, it can remain an advocate for local patients in terms of the care and services they want.
On the other hand, she said, the board might be doing a disservice to local taxpayers if it is collecting revenue from them alone to support what have become regional services.
“If we want to turn Unity into a psychiatric hospital that serves the entire Allina area,” she said, “the question for me is: ‘Is that the responsibility for the taxpayers of my city?’ ”