By Senator, Lena C. Taylor
A growing number of hospitals around the country are continuing the trend of relocating full service hospitals to wealthier communities. Often facing financial dilemmas due to treating an increased number of low income, underinsured or uninsured patients, far too many urban hospitals are limiting their services. Others are closing shop all together, while decrying the enormous costs associated with continuing to operate out of outdated facilities and hospitals, often built more than 70 years ago. There are tons of examples of hospitals saying it is simply cheaper to build a new facility and update existing hospital structures. We also can’t minimize the role that state and federal government plays in indirectly determining hospital relocation trends. Insufficient Medicaid reimbursement rates, paid by the states, are helping to drive hospitals out of low-income neighborhoods, as well.
Milwaukee is no stranger to these challenges. Remember St. Michael’s? In 2006, Wheaton Franciscan announced it was closing the emergency and other major departments at the northside hospital, for many of the same reasons cited above. What about the back and forth with Aurora Sinai Medical Center, in which financial losses were topping nearly $40 million dollars at one point. So many of us were not surprised when we heard that Ascension Health, which manages Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare’s St. Joseph campus in Milwaukee, was contemplating either a reduction in services or closing.
Known by many as St. Joe’s, those paying attention had heard the rumors for years that the hospital was suffering substantial financial losses in 2016. For many in the community, this was extremely concerning considering St. Joe’s vital service to area residents. Viewed as a “safety net” hospital, an estimated 70,000 people receive medical care at St. Joe’s each year. Without question, the facility provides critical care to residents of central Milwaukee. Without doubt, there will be jobs lost and perhaps a significant change to the tax base in the area. So, it is no surprise that local leaders, state legislators and community advocates all went into action to stop plans to limit services at the location.
Although plans to downsize the hospital have been put on hold, proposed changes remain under consideration and the impact to the community, continues to be an unknown. As concepts are being fleshed out, many would like to see Ascension allocate space in the hospital complex to address socio-economic determinants of health, including housing, education, and employment. There are models around the country that have restructured traditional hospital systems to reflect a model using partnerships with other health care and social services that focus on outpatient care and telemedicine. As they move through the process, I will continue to ensure that the voice and opinions of the community are heard and considered. However, this represents a broader problem, that our state and federal leaders need to seriously address.