Panelists discuss U Hospital merger

by Bei Hu

Supporters and opponents of University Hospital’s proposed merger with Fairview Health System aired their views at the Academic Health Center-Fairview Public Forum on June 3, just weeks before the fate of the merger is to be sealed.
The forum brought together more than 80 University Hospital and Fairview employees as well as community members. Also present were University Board of Regents members William Peterson, Stanley Sahlstrom and Patricia Spence.
The University Of Minnesota Academic Health Center-Fairview Project Team sponsored the event, which was held at Coffman Union Theater.
The forum featured a panel presentation from University officials who have been masterminding the merger plan with Fairview executives.
In addition to the three panelists, presentations included Senior Vice President for Finance and Operations Jo Anne Jackson; University head attorney Mark Rotenberg; and former Health Center provost William Brody, who now serves as special assistant to the University president.
In their presentation, the panelists addressed the audience’s concern with possible job loss at University Hospital. They stressed that the integration is an economical alternative to closing the hospital, which, Rotenberg said, would cost far more jobs than the proposed merger.
Twenty speakers representing University and Fairview employees as well as local citizen groups took the floor after the panel presentation. Some argued that turning over the University hospital to Fairview, a private organization, would jeopardize research and medical education at the health center and reduce public access to the hospital’s facilities. They also expressed concerns about how the merger would affect hospital employees.
Jeff Hahn, a University Hospital worker and a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said he didn’t feel the discussion was sincere and that the merger is already a done deal.
“I am not going to speak to these folks, as they obviously have already made up their mind about the future of the University of Minnesota Hospital, which I happen to wholeheartedly disagree with,” he said.
Then, in a gesture of defiance, Hahn turned away from University officials sitting on the other end of the stage.
Calling the forum “a sham procedure,” Hahn said, “This meeting should have taken place last October or November. It should have been a real public forum in front of the whole Board of Regents.”
Most Fairview employees spoke in favor of the affiliation, saying it would combine the strengths of the University Hospital and Fairview. They reassured the audience that the merged system would be more competitive, but would remain committed to research, education and community service.
“I believe that the viable affiliation will provide an academic environment, a research environment that could likely not otherwise be continued or retained by the University,” said Fairview physician Robert Meiches, echoing the panelists who spoke before him.
The University Hospital, part of the health center, is now closer than ever to merging with Fairview. The health center began the search for a partner three years ago as its research and education funds plummeted and its patient base declined. Last November, the search focused on Fairview. In January, the center won approval from the regents to proceed with negotiations.
Jackson said at the beginning of the forum that detailed negotiations with Fairview, which began in January, are continuing. She said the two sides hoped to conclude the negotiation by the end of June or early July. The final agreement will then be reviewed by the regents and their Fairview counterpart.
“I wish the wisdom of the administration and the Board of Regents can look beyond the short-term challenges to the ultimate objectives,” Meiches said after offering his endorsement of the merger.
Although Fairview employees overwhelmingly hailed the merger plan, most of their University counterparts did not hold back their frustration.
University workers and union representatives such as Ruth Bettendorf, president of AFSCME Local 1164, acknowledged the University Hospital’s financial trouble, but insisted “privatization” would provide no remedy to the problem.
“The University of Minnesota Hospital should not be privatized,” said AFSCME Local 3800 president Kathy Kleckner. “In fact, the proposed Fairview takeover … is actually University administration giving up on University Hospital.”
Arnold Lande, a Fairview physician who spoke against the affiliation at the forum, said many of his colleagues had concerns for their own job safety. Layoffs had taken place at Fairview even before the merger talks began.
He questioned whether University Hospital should consider a merger with Fairview at this point, given the fact some of Fairview Southdale’s physicians were under investigation by the state attorney general’s office for their medical practice and credentials. He said the investigation revealed Fairview’s management problems.