Push to open new Chippewa Valley hospital continues ahead of HSHS closures

Chippewa Valley Health Cooperative will work to open a new hospital after failed attempts to delay closure of St. Joseph's, Sacred Heart hospitals

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

Leaders of a physician network in the Chippewa Valley region said their efforts to establish an independent hospital will continue, despite failed attempts to acquire two facilities slated to close this spring.

OakLeaf Medical Network announced on Tuesday that it was assisting a group of local business leaders in establishing the Chippewa Valley Health Cooperative.

The newly registered cooperative, which is in process of becoming a nonprofit, will work toward opening an independent hospital in the region in response to the coming closures of Hospital Sisters Health System facilities.

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HSHS began winding down operations at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls and Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire in late January as part of the Illinois-based health system’s exit from the region. The closures include the network of Prevea Health primary and specialty care clinics, impacting nearly 1,400 workers.

A week after the closure announcement, OakLeaf reported that it had made an offer to work with HSHS to maintain operations at the facilities with the hope of eventually operating the hospitals and clinics.

One of OakLeaf’s providers, Chippewa Valley Orthopedics and Sports Medicine, also sued HSHS for breach of contract, asking the court to order the health system to maintain services until July. But the judge denied the request for a temporary injunction during a hearing last week.

Dr. Kyle Dettbarn, board chair of OakLeaf and one of the network’s physicians, said they had hoped to maintain the emergency rooms, intensive care units and other critical services because of the impact the closures will have on the community. Dettbarn said he has provided pulmonary and critical care services to patients at the hospitals for more than two decades.

“Frequently, Sacred Heart is on divert because we’re full, we do not have any bed availability,” he said. “The hospital across town, the Mayo Clinic hospital, is frequently on divert. And it’s not unusual for that to occur on at least a weekly basis. So when (HSHS) announced that they were closing, we quickly realized that this was going to turn into a health care crisis.”

He said HSHS never responded to their offer beyond acknowledging that it was received.

When asked about the proposal from OakLeaf, an HSHS spokesperson said in an email that the health system’s focus “remains on winding down our hospital operations thoughtfully and with patient safety as our top priority.”

HSHS’s efforts to exit western Wisconsin known a year ago

Dettbarn said OakLeaf’s proposal to HSHS in February was not the first offer they made to take over services at the two hospitals. He said the physician network first approached the hospital system in spring 2023.

“We knew that they were looking at getting out of the Chippewa Valley or were looking at selling, and they were talking to other health care entities,” he said.

He said OakLeaf’s understanding was at that time that HSHS planned to close St. Joseph’s Hospital but would sell Sacred Heart to another operator.

As HSHS wraps up services ahead of the April 21 closure date, it becomes less likely the facilities will be sold or transferred. But OakLeaf CEO Penny Osman Bahr said the cooperative will still be tasked with finding a way to respond to the community’s needs for more hospital beds and providers.

“There are short-term, there are mid-term and there are long-term needs,” she said. “The independent community hospital, if it’s a de novo new hospital, it will be a longer-term vision. That doesn’t mean nothing will occur in a shorter period of time to sustain health care here.”

Federal law prohibits doctors from owning hospitals, preventing OakLeaf from operating a new facility outright. But Osman Bahr said physicians in the network will play an important role in helping the cooperative plan the best path foward.

“You can move people over to a building but if there aren’t enough physicians, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s a building that just has beds with no people to take care of them.”

OakLeaf Medical Network is funding a health care consultant and legal support for the cooperative until it can assume all costs. After establishing a member structure and bylaws for the organization, the organizers hope to elect a formal board of directors within the next six months.

Leaders say patients will still feel the impacts of closures

Regional health care systems have worked to expand their capacity in preparation for the coming closures. Both Mayo Clinic Health System and Marshfield Clinic Health System added labor and delivery beds to their Eau Claire hospitals and said they were preparing to meet increased demand for emergency care and other services.

But Osman Bahr said the expansions may not be enough. She said OakLeaf’s OBGYN group has almost 1,000 patients that planned to deliver at one of the HSHS hospitals. But the expansions at the other facilities will only accommodate around 600 of those births.

Dettbarn said he’s also concerned that health care workers being laid off by HSHS and Prevea will leave the region before a new hospital can open. He said it can be a challenge to get medical professionals to move to the region and could be even more difficult to convince laid off workers to come back if they move on to other opportunities.

“That also creates significant economic issues for the Chippewa Valley in the long term,” he said. “These are highly-educated, highly-trained people that don’t just grow on trees.”

He said OakLeaf has contacted many of the HSHS providers that will be laid off about joining the network and bringing their medical staff with them.