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Gov. Evers discusses layoffs, health care access in western Wisconsin ahead of regional closures

During discussion with local leaders, Evers said HSHS, Prevea were wrong to not provide more notice of coming closures

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Gov. Tony Evers says Hospital Sisters Health System and Prevea Health should have told state officials and their employees that closures were coming well before the announcement was made two weeks ago.

Notices filed with the state Department of Workforce Development on Jan. 22 said layoffs are expected to begin on March 22 at HSHS Sacred Heart hospital in Eau Claire, HSHS St. Joseph’s hospital in Chippewa Falls and the associated Prevea Health facilities. Nearly 1,400 employees across 21 locations are expected to lose their jobs.

During a visit to Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire on Monday, Evers met with local and state leaders in workforce development, health care and higher education to talk about what’s being done to help workers and patients.

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“I am incredibly disappointed as governor because of how this happened and how it was handled, frankly, is wrong,” Evers said during the discussion. “The employers did nothing to give their employees any warning and they did nothing to give my administration any warning.”

Evers told reporters after the event that he was confident in local and state efforts to connect laid off workers with new employment. That includes a community job fair focused on health care on Wednesday hosted by the West Central Wisconsin Workforce Development Board.

But the governor said he is concerned about the future availability of health care services in the region, especially for mental health.

“The biggest issue is who’s going to run the hospitals,” Evers said during the event. “I’d like to say I have an answer. I do not. I cannot force that to happen.”

Last week, OakLeaf Medical Network announced it had contacted HSHS leadership about purchasing the western Wisconsin facilities with the hope of continuing services. 

An HSHS spokesperson said on Friday that the health system had received correspondence from the private physician network and had been in touch with them. The spokesperson did not respond on Monday to a request for comment on the governor’s remarks.

Nathan Houdek, the state’s commissioner of insurance, said during the event that his office has contacted all insurance companies that provide coverage in the area to ensure that patients won’t be negatively affected when transitioning their care to a new provider.

“We’re making sure that in-network providers are still being dealt with appropriately and people aren’t being charged for having to go out of network if they need to,” Houdek said. 

He said people affected by the closures should contact his agency with questions or complaints if they feel they aren’t able to access the care they need, or if they are being charged an inappropriate amount for services.

The Chippewa Herald reported the L.E. Phillips Libertas Center in Chippewa Falls permanently closed on Friday, only 11 days after the closures were announced.  The center was a substance abuse treatment facility that offered both in-patient and out-patient care.

In a letter sent Thursday, Eau Claire city attorney Stephen Nick told HSHS and Prevea leadership that reports that some employees have already been terminated have raised concerns that workers and city officials were not given early enough notice. 

Nick said in the letter that state and federal law entitles employees to at least 60 days of pay and benefits from the date a layoff notice is given to all required parties, which he said includes the city of Eau Claire. According to Nick’s letter, city officials did not receive notice until Jan. 29, guaranteeing pay and benefits to employees until at least March 29. He said an employer that violates these laws is subject to civil penalties through the state Department of Workforce Development or action in federal court.

“The City hopes and expects that such legal action is not necessary,” Nick wrote in the letter.

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