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Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls leaders say news of hospital closures shocked communities

Officials worry about patient care, jobs affected by HSHS, Prevea closures this spring

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Exterior of St. Joseph's Hospital
HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls will be closed by April 21 due to “prolonged financial and operational stress”, according to the health care system. Photo courtesy of HSHS

Chippewa Falls Mayor Greg Hoffman said a hospital is a key part of any community. He knows first hand, after experiencing a stroke about five years ago and receiving care at his city’s only hospital, HSHS St. Joseph’s.

“They stabilized me, gave me a clot buster, and then they loaded me up and took me to HSHS Sacred Heart (in Eau Claire), where the heart procedures were done,” Hoffman said.

Both St. Joseph’s and Sacred Heart hospitals are now shutting down. The closures are part of what the Hospital Sisters Health System announced Monday would be a “complete exit from the Western Wisconsin region.” As part of that plan, Prevea Health primary and specialty care clinics in 10 communities in the region will also close, affecting 1,407 jobs across all locations.

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HSHS and Prevea issued a statement saying the decision came after “prolonged operational and financial stress related to lingering impacts of the pandemic, inflation, workforce constraints, local market challenges and other industry-wide trends.”

Hoffman said he didn’t know the closure was coming, though he had heard local concern about the financial stability of St. Joseph’s for several years.

He said it was frustrating that the health care system did not alert local leaders, especially because of the effects it will have on public services.

“Our police department, if they pick somebody up at 11:30 p.m. for a suspected OWI, they take them to St. Joe’s to draw blood,” he said. “In the future, they’re going to have to go down to Mayo in Eau Claire or they’re going to have to go up to Bloomer.”

It will also mean longer drive times for the city’s ambulance service, which Hoffman worries could affect patient outcomes.

Local leaders say they’re looking for ways to support affected patients, employees

Hoffman said he and other local officials are hoping to find another health care system to step in and continue operating the hospital. He said they’ve contacted other providers in the area, as well as state officials.

Eau Claire City Council president Emily Berge sent a letter to city residents on Tuesday, acknowledging the shock that many people are experiencing from losing their medical provider or job. 

“There is uncertainty and worry about what the future holds,” Berge wrote in the letter. “My heart goes out to all those impacted in Northwest Wisconsin.” 

She said in the letter that local leaders are coming together to find ways to support the community.

HSHS and Prevea declined WPR’s request for an interview. A spokesperson for the health systems did not have information on the number of patients affected. She said they would work with providers to transition patients’ care to another provider of their choosing.

The majority of closures will happen on or before April 21, with some clinics remaining open until June 30.

Ashley Swanson, a UW-Madison economist who studies the health care industry, said the concern when any hospital or clinic closes is the impact on access to care for patients.

“People might have to drive a lot farther in order to access needed care and that can have short and long term consequences for the health of local communities,” she said. “This might result in worse outcomes for acute procedures, like labor and delivery, or it could result in people having less access to care for chronic conditions, like cardiovascular conditions or diabetes.”

Swanson said research on health care markets has also shown that competition leads to lower prices and higher quality care for patients.

Closures will impact current, future health care workforce in area

Kristen Abbott-Anderson, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s College of Nursing and Health Sciences, said she was shocked and saddened by the news of the closures. She said undergraduate and graduate students in the college have been training at Sacred Heart hospital since the program began in 1965.

“HSHS has been in our community for many, many years and has served our community well,” she said. “I’m saddened for the employees who will be displaced from this closing. It’s quite devastating, I think, to our community as a whole.”

Sacred Heart hospital is the only hospital in northwest Wisconsin with a behavioral health department. Abbott-Anderson said the loss of that program will create a “vacuum” in an area of health care that is already difficult to access.

She said it’s too early to say how the closing will affect job opportunities for students and graduates in the area. HSHS and Prevea have stated that physicians and other employees will receive career transition assistance, including the opportunity to seek positions at the systems’ northeastern Wisconsin locations.

Abbott-Anderson said personally, she is worried about the capacity of remaining health systems in the area to take on patients in need of a new provider. She said rural communities have been facing hospital closures for years, but it’s unusual to see a shutdown like this in an urban area like the City of Eau Claire.

Swanson said she has not heard of other hospital systems around the country closing due to tough market conditions. But she said many hospitals operate on thin margins and are financially vulnerable, making it hard to weather challenges like inflation or workforce shortages.

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