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UMN medical students speak out against Sanford-Fairview merger

Concerns remain among some medical students in anticipation of the Sanford and Fairview Health merger.
Image by Photo by Shalom Berhane
Fairview Riverside Medical Center on February 16, 2023.

Some University of Minnesota Medical School students have expressed concerns regarding the Sanford and Fairview Health merger planned for later this year.

Sanford and Fairview Health publicly announced the intent to merge in November 2022. The original date for the merger completion was set for March 31, however, the health care companies have voluntarily delayed the merger by two months, according to Aimee Jordan, a spokesperson for Fairview Health.

Students respond to the proposed merger

Some students have expressed uncertainty regarding the University’s response to the merger, according to Jovany Betancourt, a medical student at the University and student senator for the Medical School.

“Before January, the University actually didn’t tell us anything,” Betancourt said.

In January, medical student Savannah Maynard wrote a letter addressed to Medical School Dean Jakob Tolar and University President Joan Gabel regarding student concerns about the merger. The letter was signed as a petition by more than 270 medical students.

The two largest concerns outlined in the letter were Sanford Health’s ties to South Dakota’s anti-abortion laws and the company’s lack of commitment to funding academic research.

Betancourt said it is important the University remains committed to protecting and providing reproductive health care.

“They are about to take over a health system that is a beacon of support in the midwest for access to those kinds of health services,” Betancourt said.

Sanford Health has stated Fairview’s existing reproductive health care services will not change when the companies merge. However, medical students, including Maynard and Betancourt, remain concerned about the potential for that to change.

“Given the repeated pattern of limiting access to gender-affirming care and abortion services by South Dakota lawmakers, we are concerned that Sanford will not maintain the current resources offered in Minnesota,” Maynard wrote in the letter to University administration.

Some students are also concerned about Sanford’s support of medical research, Betancourt said, since it is a “core strength” of the University’s Medical School.

According to Betancourt, this raises further concerns for research and hospital funding, as well as the potential to affect the Medical School’s ranking.

“Fairview Health is the primary donor to the University’s Medical School,” Betancourt said.

Medical students have taken on further efforts to oppose the merger, including a protest on Feb. 3. Medical students were joined by physicians and Minneapolis City Council Member Robin Wonsley to speak out against the merger.

Minnesota attorney general gets involved

At the end of January, Attorney General Keith Ellison asked Fairview and Sanford to delay their merger until May.

“We continue to work cooperatively with Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison to ensure he has the information necessary for his review,” Jordan said in a statement to the Minnesota Daily.

Betancourt said he thinks the attorney general’s office has done a “good job” so far regarding the merger, saying they have been collecting public comments and opinions through town halls and online input forms.

“It seems like they’re really trying to find ways of combating the merger from a legal standpoint,” Betancourt said.

Betancourt said the most the attorney general’s office can do at the moment is stall the merger until the office can find a viable legal defense or for an alternative option to occur.

“From my understanding, Fairview is deeply in debt and losing lots of money, so there is very little alternative for Fairview,” Betancourt said. “I don’t have an answer to that and no one I’ve spoken to has an answer for that.”

The University has its own plan

Since the merger was announced, the University announced in January its MPact Health Care Innovation plan, which involves purchasing its on-campus hospitals.

The current agreement between Fairview Health and the University lasts until 2026, according to Jordan.

“We continue to be very interested in a clinical partnership with the University of Minnesota and are optimistic about our current and ongoing discussions,” Jordan said.

The MPact Health Care Innovation plan would allow the University to remain in control of the University of Minnesota Medical Center and their research after the merger goes through.

Betancourt said he is not optimistic about the prospects of stopping the merger from moving forward.

“My personal opinion is that the merger will go through because health care systems are big and powerful, and they have money and time on their hands,” Betancourt said.

Betancourt went to the State Capitol in St. Paul as a medical student representative for the Minnesota Medical Association (MMA) and brought up the issue of the merger with Minnesota representatives. The MMA’s official position is that it supports a competitive health care market and that there are potential advantages and disadvantages to the proposed merger, which is why the organization supports the Attorney General’s investigation.

“It was surprising to hear that they also know nothing about this merger,” Betancourt said. “It seems like this came out of left field for a lot of people.”

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