ST. PAUL — The future of Minnesota’s first hospital — St. Joseph’s Hospital in downtown St. Paul — may come down to a vote of the Fairview board of directors later this month.
The 19-member board overseeing nonprofit Fairview Health Services is contemplating layoffs within its hospitals and clinics. This may include closing St. Joe’s within the next few years to cut costs and refocus on suburban medical facilities.
A board discussion will take place Thursday or Friday, with a vote likely in coming weeks.
Calls to several board members were not immediately returned on Monday, Dec. 2, including to board chairman Rich Ostlund.
“There will be no decisions made regarding St. Joe’s at this week’s board meeting,” said Aimee Jordan, a Fairview spokesperson, on Monday.
Physicians and others taken aback by the behind-the-scenes decision-making that could shutter a longstanding St. Paul institution have begun a social media campaign using the hashtag #StJoesServesStPaul.
Founded in 1853 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet following a cholera outbreak, St. Joseph’s served generations of St. Paul residents. It currently maintains a mental health ward geared toward patients in crisis, including those from nearby homeless shelters such as Catholic Charities’ Higher Ground facility.
If approved by the board, the other changes to Fairview hospitals and clinics likely would be felt throughout St. Paul, including possible layoffs at the Bethesda Rehabilitation Hospital in downtown and the Bethesda Family Medicine Clinic at 580 Rice St.
A blog run by the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians recently featured a plea to recognize the importance of urban medical services located near shelters, low-income housing and high-poverty St. Paul neighborhoods.
The blog post, written by a second-year medical resident in family medicine, recounts an overnight shift at St. Joe’s that resulted in emergency care for an elderly Hmong woman on insulin after her daughter called for advice.
“St. Joseph’s is just down the street from their home, and a doctor from a clinic they knew and trusted was already there and would ensure her mother was well taken care of,” reads the post from Dr. Stephanie Aldrin.
“Together, the (emergency department) physician and I were able to treat the patient’s blood sugar, plan for a follow up visit at Bethesda clinic the following day and send her home safely with her daughter, all without requiring inpatient hospitalization,” Aldrin wrote.
“St. Joseph’s Hospital is an extension of the outpatient primary care we provide to our patients,” Aldrin wrote. “We are a better health care community because of our ability to provide a higher level of care to our patients in the same neighborhood where they see their regular doctor.”
Fairview bought HealthEast, closed maternity ward
Fairview acquired St. Joe’s in June 2017 when it bought the HealthEast care system.
As a result, Fairview now has more than 34,000 employees, including 5,000 medical providers.
Changes were soon evident. Fairview closed St. Joe’s maternity ward in September 2017, drawing concern and disappointment from generations of St. Paul-area residents who had been born at the hospital or had their children there.
At the time, Fairview cited a decline in deliveries at St. Joe’s, amid projections showing an uptick in deliveries at the hospital network’s suburban locations, including St. John’s Hospital in Maplewood and Woodwinds Health Campus in Woodbury.
St. Joe’s currently maintains 250 inpatient beds and 100 inpatient psychiatric beds.
More changes followed. Fairview is in the midst of re-branding itself and its facilities M Health Fairview, including M Health Fairview St. Joseph’s Hospital — formerly known as HealthEast St. Joseph’s Hospital.
Tabitha Mitchell, a fourth-generation Frogtown resident whose entire family was born at Bethesda or St. Joe’s, said outreach to the surrounding neighborhoods has been nonexistent.
“It’s really frustrating to hear them talking about ‘we’re going to move closer to our patients.’ Does that mean four generations of us weren’t your patients?” said Mitchell, quoting a media report. “Why am I finding out about this today? What kind of engagement are you doing with the surrounding community?”
On Monday evening, Mitchell planned to present a media report about the Fairview budget discussions to the board of the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, which she sits on.
“If you think about working class and working poor folks who live in the surrounding neighborhoods — East Siders, Frogtown, West Side, Rondo — you can catch the city bus to Bethesda or St. Joe’s,” Mitchell said. “That’s where less than six months ago we were catching a bus to see my father after his back surgery.”
The Bethesda Clinic on Rice Street, which is home to a University of Minnesota Medical School residency program, serves immigrant and refugee populations through partnerships with the Center for Victims of Torture, Hmong American Partnership, the Karen Organization of Minnesota and Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services.
On Monday, a spokeswoman for Fairview said she would seek an official comment on budget discussions.
The Fairview hospital network is led by a dozen executives, including president and CEO James Hereford, who joined Fairview in 2016. Hereford previously served as chief operations officer at Stanford Health Care and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, as well as holding key roles with the Group Health Care Delivery System.