Proposed Sanford-Fairview merger draws mixed reactions in Worthington
Wednesday’s community input meeting at Worthington High School was the third of four planned by the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office.
WORTHINGTON — Sanford Health’s proposed merger with Fairview Health Systems drew praise and criticism alike at Worthington High School during Wednesday’s community input meeting — the third of four planned around the state by the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office.
Before public comment began, the CEOs of the two health systems spoke about the proposed merger.
“Sanford Health has a long history of providing equitable and inclusive care to the underserved communities,” said Bill Gassen, president and CEO of Sanford Health. “Worthington, as you know, is a vibrant and diverse community and we are proud of the commitment to delivering culturally competent care to meet all patients’ needs.”
He said the merger is about doing more for the people Sanford serves, arguing that any delays to the merger are missed opportunities to benefit patients.
“The opportunities are many, and include expanding access to care and improving the patient experience,” said James Hereford, president and CEO at Fairview. “... Sanford and Fairview share a long-standing commitment to work for a brighter future for our patients, our people and our communities. We firmly believe our ability to do so will be made much stronger together.”
Some were concerned about Sanford’s South Dakota roots, particularly in relation to Fairview’s ownership of the University of Minnesota Medical Center and its partnership with the University of Minnesota Medical School and the University of Minnesota Physicians Group. That partnership is set to end in 2026, with an option for a 10-year extension in 2023.
Dr. Bevan Yueh, CEO for the University of Minnesota Physicians, spoke prior to the public comment period, explaining the University of Minnesota’s responsibilities as a land grant university with the only public medical school in the state, with campuses in Duluth and the Twin Cities.
Yueh asked Attorney General Keith Ellison to slow down and discuss the merger further to ensure it is done correctly and with reference to the different entities’ obligations and missions.
“Pushing a quick approval of a merger is to squeeze out the public interest,” Yueh said. “... the public interest must come first. A rushed approach without a comprehensive plan to address issues of public health treats the university and its academic mission as a secondary question.”
Earlier, Gassen had said that although some university leaders had publicly said the merger could not move forward without the university, “with all due respect, yes, it can. Nothing, and I repeat, nothing, will change for the University of Minnesota as a result of this merger.”
Those speaking against the merger were apprehensive about health care consolidation leading to decreased competition, monopolization and eventually, increasing costs for patients.
Others were worried about potential understaffing and other problems health care workers might face due to lack of competition among potential employers or hostility to unions.
“I stand in opposition to the proposed merger of Sanford and Fairview Health Systems,” said Dale Moerke, a retiree from Luverne. “But the cynic in me says to you, go ahead and book this merger. Why not. Why don’t we strive to have only two health care systems in the state. What could possibly go wrong? Well, it’d be too big to fail.”
Moerke noted that the Good Samaritan Society, a nursing home provider that merged with Sanford, recently announced it was consolidating and downsizing its operations.
Some, too, said they were concerned that the merger could negatively impact medical care for LGBTQ people, including gender-affirming care for transgender people, or reproductive health care for women.
“My concerns are basically, if Sanford is going to have management over Minnesota business and health care, when we have differences in opinions as far as rules and laws related to reproductive health care,” said Terri Janssen, health services director for SMOC Family Planning. She cited the high teen pregnancy rate in the area, and said “we don’t need to make that worse.”
Many Sanford employees and patients spoke, praising the organization for providing cancer treatment locally, bringing specialty physicians to rural areas that might not otherwise be able to access them, and for extending additional resources to the area to help with its COVID-19 response.
David Post, who had gall bladder surgery in February, and was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in April, which in turn caused acute kidney disease, is on dialysis three days a week and has chemotherapy injections once a week at Sanford Worthington Medical Center.
He moved to Worthington after living on the farm for 58 years in order to be close to medical facilities.
“I have received excellent care … I have visited with several fellow patients who live in the surrounding area, and they are happy they don’t have to drive many miles for treatment,” Post said. “I am in favor of a merger between Sanford and Fairview. I feel it can enhance the excellent care that we get now at Sanford, and it could bring more specialized medicine and physicians to our rural communities.”
Kylie Turner, clinical supervisor at Sanford Worthington Clinic, started with Sanford more than 15 years ago as a newly graduated registered nurse.
“I have no doubt that without the teamwork of Sanford, our community would not have been able to pull through the pandemic like we did,” she said. “I am so proud to be part of the Sanford team, and love nothing more than serving my community with such phenomenal and equitable care to our amazingly diverse population.”
Others involved in partnerships with Sanford spoke in favor of the organization, including several lauding its work with Our Lady of Guadalupe Free Clinic, a free clinic for the uninsured. The clinic recently moved to a Sanford-owned building, and for six years, it has been collaborating with Sanford Health Cooperative, which sends a team to Worthington to provide patient care once a week.
“Sanford Health has become a critical part in our ability to deliver accessible, timely and quality care to our community,” said the Rev. Jim Callahan, pastor at St. Mary’s Church in Worthington, who co-founded OLGFC.
Representatives from two public schools spoke about their partnerships with Sanford for services including school nursing, athletic trainers and facilities donations.
“Currently, Sanford has committed to us over the next 10 years $110,000 per year, at a minimum, along with paying for athletic trainers,” said John Landgaard, District 518 superintendent. “So our support from Sanford has been extremely positive. Our working relationship has been positive. And we’re extremely appreciative of the collaborative effort that’s happened.”
Dawn Gordon, dean of science and nursing at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, noted that graduates of the school's nursing programs are trained locally at Sanford Worthington, and thanked Sanford for its partnership.
"We need (Sanford) in our community and we look forward to future partnership," Gordon said.
Worthington City Administrator Steve Robinson, who also served as a member of the local hospital board when Sanford Worthington Medical Center was city-owned, spoke in favor of the merger.
“If not for the presence of Sanford, the services available at our hospital may be drastically different, and the burden of operations may be falling on the backs of our taxpayers,” Robinson said. “The merger of Fairview and Sanford is intended to afford our residents continued access to expert health care through a larger network of general and specialist doctor and health care practitioners.”
“The proposed merger between Sanford and Fairview Health Systems will benefit Worthington and outstate communities in our state of Minnesota. This merger will provide better health care for the Twin Cities,” said Mike Kuhle, former mayor of Worthington.
He said Sanford’s work has improved health care for many communities in southwest Minnesota, providing access to people who might not otherwise have health care.
The final community meeting will begin at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 31, at the Ives Studio at the Reif Performing Arts Center in Grand Rapids.
Visit www.ag.state.mn.us/sanford-fairview/ for more information, or to submit community input online.