Western Wisconsin health systems add capacity ahead of hospital, clinic closures

Aspirus Health, Marshfield Clinic, Mayo Clinic say they're adding beds, capacity at Chippewa Valley locations

A masked hand grabbing a surgical instrument in an operating room
Surgical instruments are used during an organ transplant surgery at a hospital in Washington on Tuesday, June 28, 2016. The U.S. counted its millionth organ transplant on Friday, Sept. 9, 2022, a milestone that comes at a critical time for Americans still desperately waiting for that chance at survival. Molly Riley/ AP Photo

Western Wisconsin health care systems are looking for ways to expand their capacity ahead of the closure of two area hospitals and a network of clinics.

Hospital Sisters Health System’s Sacred Heart hospital in Eau Claire and HSHS St. Joseph’s hospital in Chippewa Falls will close on or before April 21, according to the health system. Prevea Health primary and specialty care clinics in 10 western Wisconsin communities will also close this spring.

The abrupt closures have caused concern from local and state officials about access to care in the region and the ability of other local health care systems to take on displaced patients.

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Aspirus Health announced Tuesday that they are working to expand care at their hospitals in Stanley and Medford and area clinics, which include locations in Gilman, Owen and Thorp.

The Wausau-based health system plans to add six inpatient beds in Stanley and eight beds in Medford, which are located around 27 miles and 67 miles respectively from Chippewa Falls. They also plan to expand capacity for surgeries and other services like lab, imaging and primary care.

Matt Heywood, CEO and President of Aspirus, said the expansions are already underway. He said the health system has been working in recent weeks to add beds and ramp up capacity.

“We know there are thousands of individuals who are going to be searching for health care needs in our communities,” Heywood said during a Tuesday press conference. “We don’t know exactly what that number is, but we know that there’s going to be a large number of people that are displaced and looking for health care. So at this time, we’re looking to provide access for them.”

Heywood said the HSHS closures have sparked new discussion on the challenges that exist for rural health care. He said health systems need to be “foresightful” to be there for communities long term.

“That means we need to see these challenges ahead of time, manage these challenges ahead of time and make some of the tough decisions,” he said. 

Health systems focus on birthing capacity, emergency departments

Last week, Marshfield Clinic Health System announced they will more than double the number of beds in their labor and delivery department at Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire.

The center will go from eight to 20 beds, allowing them to care for an additional 550 births annually, according to a press release. The hospital’s midwifery team in Eau Claire will provide its services at the Marshfield Clinic location in Chippewa Falls.

Brad Groseth, Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire’s president, said in the press release Friday that the hospital is “finalizing plans for an expected increase of patient volume, especially in emergency and urgent care.”

Marshfield Clinic Health System was unable to fulfill WPR’s request for an interview Tuesday. But the health system said in their press release that they’re committed to exploring ways to serve the region. The statement said hospital leaders will meet with local officials about future health needs of the community and how to provide services “in a way that is financially sustainable.”

Mayo Clinic Health System said they have already received some patients needing cancer treatment, wound care and other services from HSHS locations to ensure continuity of care.

Mayo Clinic was also unable to meet WPR’s interview request, but said in a statement that the health system is increasing the total number of patients that can be served at their five hospitals in northwest Wisconsin. 

The statement said Mayo will significantly increase the number of deliveries possible at their Family Birth Center in Eau Claire and look for ways to care for more patients in emergency departments and urgent care clinics. The health system is also hoping to meet patient needs through video visits and an at-home care program.

Dr. Richard Helmers, Mayo Clinic’s regional vice president, said in an emailed statement that the health system hopes to help the health care workers and students impacted by the closures.

“We are working to match qualified healthcare workers with open positions that are appropriate for their skills,” Helmers said. “For nursing students and other medical learners who need clinical experience to complete their education, we are adding more than 10,000 clinical hours for training.”

He said Mayo Clinic will continue to participate in a recovery task force created by the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce to address the needs of patients and employees of the closing facilities.

HSHS and Prevea Health expect to lay off nearly 1,400 employees across the region.

OakLeaf Medical Network, a network of clinics and a surgical hospital in Eau Claire, has said they are working to establish a new hospital in the Chippewa Valley region. The network announced earlier this month that they hope to buy all of the HSHS and Prevea Health locations that are set to close.

One of the network’s clinics filed for an injuction against HSHS on Friday, asking the Eau Claire County court to require the hospital system remain open until July.