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MN attorney general asks to delay merger between Sanford, Fairview health systems

The consolidation is set to close on March 31, but Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison says that timeline is concerning.

MINNEAPOLIS — As the potential merger of two major health care systems draws nearer, more voices are speaking out and some of them are criticizing the move. 

Minnesota's Attorney General Keith Ellison is asking that the two health systems delay the merger.

In a statement to KARE 11, Ellison wrote, "It’s more important to do this right than to do it fast, which is why the parties’ existing timeline concerns us. As a result, we have formally asked the parties to delay the March 31 closing date and are awaiting their formal response."

If all goes to plan, Fairview Health Services and Sanford Health have agreed to consolidate on March 31, a move the two systems first tried 10 years ago. 

It faced sharp criticism then and now. People are sharing similar concerns at several listening sessions that Ellison's office is hosting across the state. The latest one was held Wednesday night in Worthington. 

Fairview and Sanford's leaders spoke to the crowd, as well as former nurses who worked at Worthington Regional Hospital, which Sanford took over in 2008.

"We were told there would be no changes. Slowly this became more and more," said one nurse who worked there for 48 years. "The general feel went from friendly, hometown care to business and profits first and patients second."

A Fairview spokesperson said that 12 people in all spoke out against the merger at that meeting in Worthington. She said that 27 people spoke out in support of it, including a reverend who runs a free health clinic for uninsured immigrants.

"Sanford Health has become a critical part in our ability to deliver accessible and timely care to our community," said Fr. James Callahan. "The work we do is not easy, but we are very grateful for Sanford and other clinics."

Founded more than 100 years ago, Sanford is based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and is known for serving rural populations while rooted in the Lutheran Church. It already operates 20 hospitals in Minnesota.

Fairview is a nonprofit that partners with the University of Minnesota and its medical center — a hospital Fairview bought back in 1997, but now, the U of M wants to buy it back and build another

The move was announced only when the merger was made more clear at a news conference in mid-January.

In that same statement, Ellison also wrote that the U of M says "its interests have not been adequately considered," and that is partly why he's now asking to delay the March 31 merger. 

"The public hearings we have conducted thus far are providing helpful information, and the investigation extends far beyond them. Currently, we are waiting for substantial information from Fairview and Sanford that we need to analyze, the University of Minnesota has indicated that this proposed merger is moving too fast and its interests have not been adequately considered, and the Minnesota legislature will soon begin its consideration of this issue," wrote Ellison.

Several unions also oppose the merger, including the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, or IAM. It represents workers in the airline, woodworking, manufacturing, health care and other industries in Minnesota and across the country.

"When we're talking about health care mergers, we have to first look at the research, and what the research from Kaiser Family Foundation tells us, is that these types of corporate healthcare mergers frequently result in higher costs for patients and what there isn't any indication of, generally, with these types of mergers, is any increase in the quality of the services," said IAM Healthcare Director Shane Brinton.

Brinton says the Kaiser Family Foundation found that prices at hospitals acquired by out-of-market hospital systems increase about 17% more than unacquired, stand-along hospitals. 

IAM represents about 400 healthcare workers in the upper Midwest. Of those workers, 100 are nurses, personal care attendants and dietary aids at Sanford. 

Brinton says Sanford did successfully merge with the Good Samaritan Society in 2018 and eventually closed nine nursing homes from November 2021 to June 2022. 

A nurse at the Worthington listening session noted that pattern of change when she said, "The hospital used to be a place that people went to work and they were there for their career."

One more listening session is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 31 in Grand Rapids.

"Listen to the people who are on the frontlines," said Brinton. "Slow down, review the evidence and after you do all of that, then come back and reconsider your decision."

In its latest statement, Fairview says the merger is about doing more for those they serve. 

A spokesperson wrote, "While March 31 is a target date, we are working closely with the Attorney General’s office to ensure they have the information needed to evaluate this merger. This merger is about doing more for those we serve, and every day we delay merging Sanford and Fairview is a missed opportunity to realize the significant benefits for our patients, our people and the communities we serve.  This merger is also about taking critical steps to provide the necessary financial sustainability to serve Minnesota communities for generations to come."

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