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More than 300 protest Albert Lea hospital consolidation

ALBERT LEA — More than 300 people angry with Mayo Clinic's decision to transfer some services from its Albert Lea hospital to its hospital in Austin gathered Saturday in Central Park to protest the change.

Mayo plans to move Albert Lea's ICU to Austin today. Inpatient surgeries are scheduled to move in January 2018 and baby delivery in late 2019.

On Saturday, a number of residents, business owners, teachers, city officials and members of the Save Our Hospital organization displayed handmade signs and marched outside Mayo's hospital in Albert Lea.


"I don't like it one bit," said Gary Wichmann, a former maintenance employee for Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin. "We want our hospital back."

Others said they fear that once services are transferred out of Albert Lea, patients would be affected severely by the additional travel time it would take to go to Austin for care. The two campuses are about 23 miles apart.

During an earlier discussion of the changes, Dr. Bobbie Gostout, a Mayo Clinic vice president, equated the distance to a "trip for ice cream." Protesters latched on to the comment, and Saturday's event included an ice cream truck serving cones.

"I'm absolutely appalled that (Mayo) would treat other human beings like this," said Mary Packer-Umstead, of Albert Lea and owner of Mary-Go-Round Shoppe. "It's morally and ethically wrong. … The people are disappointed and feel taken advantage of."

'It's a worry to us'

Mayo has said the planned changes "renewed its commitment to the hospital" and rejected requests to sell the Albert Lea campus.

"We see that they're passionate and that they're fighting for quality health care in Albert Lea, and we agree with them," Mayo spokeswoman Mandie Siems said in a statement. "We do have a common goal of keeping that here. … We're not going anywhere."

But some of the protesters were skeptical that Mayo understood the impact of transferring services to Austin.

"It's a worry to us," said Kathy Lehman, Minnesota Nurses Association Albert Lea chairwoman. "We just want our community to have the health care they deserve. … In spite of the difficult road that lies ahead of us."

Rep. Paul Thissen, former House minority leader and a candidate for governor, implored Mayo to delay its planned transition and to allow Albert Lea to stop the elimination of services in town.

He also pointedly said the hospital has a responsibility to taxpayers because of Minnesota's investment in Destination Medical Center, which helps fund infrastructure in Rochester. Thissen also became the first state lawmaker to suggest DMC legislation could be rewritten because of the Albert Lea debate.

'Shame on Mayo'

Dr. Matthew Kumar, a 25-year Mayo physician and chairman of the Department of Anesthesiology at Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin, was scheduled to address the crowd after filing four federal antitrust complaints against his employer since 2015.


His 10-page complaint to the Department of Justice claimed Mayo created a "health care monopoly" by "simply eliminating competition between itself and the hospitals in the region."

Angie Hanson, organizing committee chairwoman of SOH, said Kumar called Thursday morning to say he'd been threatened by Mayo with a lawsuit if he were to attend and speak during Saturday's rally.

"He couldn't be here today, but he wanted to let us know that he was behind our cause 100 percent," Hanson said. "Shame on Mayo."

Mayo representatives denied the allegations: "We can assure you that there was no threat made."

The Post Bulletin has been unable to reach Kumar directly for comment. He hasn't responded to calls and emails.

'It's not just about us'

Sandy Kvenvold, of Albert Lea, shared that while no one argues with Mayo's medical research and quality health care, the town felt its future will be affected gravely by the loss of services.

"This world belongs to our children," Kvenvold said. "We don't want them to lose something they had no control over. We're not being good stewards for their future. It's not just about us … it's about the future they deserve."