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Wisconsin lawmakers look to help communities where hospitals are closing

A pair of bills would allocate $15M in grants for emergency services in Chippewa and Eau Claire counties

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

Wisconsin legislators are moving to shore up emergency hospital services in Chippewa and Eau Claire counties as hospitals are closing in the region.  

Hospital Sisters Health System announced last month that it will close HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire and HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls. 

Prevea Health primary and specialty care clinics in 10 communities in the area will also close. 

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The state had set aside $15 million in 2021 for HSHS to expand psychiatric bed space. Now legislators are looking to use that money to safeguard emergency department services in the communities affected by the closures.

Under the proposal, the money would be used for grants to fund health systems that commit to providing hospital emergency department services in the two counties. It could also be granted to help pay for capital expenditures for hospital emergency department services in the region.

While local officials say they appreciate the effort, it won’t solve the larger financial problems affecting rural health care systems.

“It’s a longer term issue that will take both an immediate response, which we’re appreciative of for this bill, as well as medium- and long-term responses and issues such as a funding model for health care, especially for those on Medicaid or Medicare,” said Steve Nick, the city attorney for Eau Claire. 

When announcing the closures, 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.”

Rep. Clint Moses, a Menomonie Republican and co-sponsor of the plan, agreed that more needs to be done for the long-term health of rural hospital systems. 

“This is urgent. This is something we need to do now,” Moses said. “So it’s kind of an emergency to try and at least fill the gap for the short term until things can kind of ramp up to the point that we can meet the needs for health care in the Chippewa Valley.”

Moses said an aging population and low reimbursement rates for Medicaid and Medicare patients is an unsustainable business model for rural hospitals. 

“This is not necessarily unique just to the Chippewa Valley. I predict that if things don’t change drastically, we’re gonna be seeing more of these hospital closures,” he said. 

Eric Borgerding is the executive director and CEO of the Wisconsin Hospital Association. He said regulatory burdens and private for-profit institutions are both straining the health care system.

“We have a lot of private equity-backed entities coming into Wisconsin. They might be an orthopedic surgery center. Even two-thirds of our nursing homes are for-profit,” he said.  

“So obviously, they’re trying to generate a return on their investments. That doesn’t always align real well with the need to maintain a strong safety net,” he continued. 

Lawmakers sponsoring the plan said it would receive a hearing Wednesday and could pass within the next couple of weeks. 

“We’re all looking at this in a big picture as to how we can address this issue together to take care of our people back at home,” said Sen. Jesse James, R-Altoona. 

On Monday, Sen. Tammy Baldwin called on HSHS to delay the closures and provide all scheduled services. 

“I expect that HSHS consider, in good faith, offers to purchase your facilities and equipment to support the continuation of health care services in the region for the patient populations served by Sacred Heart and St. Joseph’s Hospitals,” Baldwin said in a release.