Less than 2 weeks until 2 western Wisconsin hospitals close their doors

Hospital Sisters Health System announced Sacred Heart, St. Joseph's will both permanently close on March 22

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

Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls will officially close in less than two weeks.

Hospital Sisters Health System, or HSHS, announced on Monday that both facilities would permanently close on March 22, exactly 60 days after the health system publicly announced they were exiting the western Wisconsin region. Sixty days is the minimum time required to provide notice of a mass layoff under federal and state law.

The health system said in a press release Monday that they are coordinating with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to “ensure patient care transitions are well-planned and conducted safely.”

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“While the March closure of Sacred Heart is sooner than originally announced, our decision is based on our top priority: our commitment to maintain safe, quality care for our patients,” John Wagner, president and CEO for the two HSHS hospitals, said in a statement.

HSHS and Prevea Health, which operates a network of primary and specialty care clinics in the region, had originally stated that the majority of facility closures would happen on or before April 21. That timeline is still in place for the clinics, according to the latest press release.

Nearly 1,400 employees across 21 locations will be laid off by the health systems.

Prior to the announcement, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers urged Republican leaders in the state Legislature to release $15 million in emergency grant funding approved by the governor two weeks ago.

The state Department of Health Services submitted a plan to distribute the funding to the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on Feb. 28. The department would award grants to hospitals that expand capacity for services like emergency departments, inpatient psychiatric care, OB-GYNs and ambulance services for transferring patients.

City official questions accelerated timeline for hospital closures

Eau Claire city attorney Stephen Nick said he and other city leaders believe the abbreviated closure falls short of meeting federal and state requirements for employers. 

Nick said Eau Claire officials did not receive a letter notifying them of the closure until Jan. 29, which he argued means HSHS is required to provide pay and benefits to their employees until at least March 29. But he said that’s the bare minimum.

“Their obligations both under state law, that the city isn’t in a place to enforce, and their obligations to their patients, to their insured, to their own stated mission of service we think calls for them to operate through such a date as necessary to ensure a proper continuation of patient care,” he said. “We continue to have serious concerns that they’re not living up to those obligations.”

Nick said the city typically receives more than the required two months notice when a company is preparing for a business closure, allowing the city to help market a facility for sale and reuse. He said the approach that HSHS and Prevea have chosen for closing the hospitals and clinics has been disappointing and concerning.

“This would have been a situation where a much longer notice, much more transparency should have been anticipated,” he said.

Community organizations have been working to help both patients and employees affected by the coming closures.

Linda Struck, director of the Eau Claire County Aging & Disability Resource Center, said her staff has been answering questions from people with Medicare insurance plans about how to find another local provider.

“Staff have reported that we’ve gotten an increased number of calls from HSHS and Prevea employees asking questions regarding Medicare and retirement benefits,” she said. “These are people who are at Medicare age and are probably deciding would now be a good time to retire with the closures versus getting a new job.”