Mayo Clinic for decades has provided world-class medical care to patients from around the world. It has a duty to meet the same lofty standard when it comes to the well-being of the Minnesota communities that entrusted the renowned medical center with stewardship of their local hospitals.
Unfortunately, there are serious questions about whether Mayo is living up to this obligation as citizens of Albert Lea rally to maintain vital medical services — such as baby delivery and most inpatient care — at the city’s Mayo-owned hospital. The doubts raised about Mayo’s commitment to small cities in its home state are especially troubling given taxpayer support of Destination Medical Center — a private-public partnership to give Mayo’s hometown of Rochester a massive makeover.
While this state aid won’t flow directly to the medical center, the $585 million pledged by the Legislature in 2013 will pay for public infrastructure improvements needed to make the city an international health care hub. Mayo lobbied hard for the aid package, arguing that revitalizing Rochester is imperative as it competes for patients.
Mayo should sympathize then with Albert Lea residents when they say that their city’s future is important, too, and that having a hospital offering a full range of medical care is vital not just for citizens’ health, but for economic growth. The Freeborn County city, with a population around 17,600, has weathered the loss of a large meatpacking plant and is working hard to attract other employers and, along with them, young families. Having a hospital that doesn’t offer full hospital care is a real handicap.
The abruptly announced Mayo plan would leave the city’s former Naeve Hospital, which merged with Mayo in the 1990s, with a more limited range of services. The plan is to move labor and delivery, plus most inpatient care, 22 miles east to a Mayo system hospital in Austin. The Albert Lea location will offer consolidated behavioral services care and a wide range of outpatient care. The location will also continue to offer emergency care.
Mayo defended the changes to an editorial writer by pointing to the difficulties of recruiting medical providers to these locations, and the financial challenges rural hospitals face. These are legitimate points, but this information has been lost in the arrogant way in which Mayo leadership handled community relations.
Essentially, they dropped an information bomb on Albert Lea in June, announcing the service consolidation with little notice that it was under consideration. Mayo fully deserves the public relations mess that has ensued.
In particular, people are angry that they’ll have to drive 22 miles to have a baby delivered or to see a loved one in intensive care. Mayo’s assurances that consolidating services actually improves care seem highhanded given that the route is an often treacherous stretch of Interstate 90. In the dead of winter, the Austin hospital might as well be 100 miles away.
Gov. Mark Dayton has admirably weighed in with concerns about the move, and state Attorney General Lori Swanson has asked for additional financial information. A second opinion from Swanson’s office on the financial need for consolidation would help assuage doubts in Albert Lea. Mayo said its Austin and Albert Lea campuses have posted a joint $13 million operating loss the past two years.
Mayo acknowledges that its communications strategy has been less than optimal. It could repair some of the damage by giving Albert Lea residents a 90-day window before making operational changes. This would give a galvanized group of city leaders, county officials and citizens time to weigh their options. Mayo could also use the time to identify a welcome compromise.
It is important to note that controversy erupted when Mayo reduced services at small hospitals in Lake City and Fairmont. Hard feelings linger in these communities. Mayo would do well to remember that as it leads its rural hospital network into the future. So far, its top-down decisionmaking has not served it well.