Community fights potential loss of St. Joseph’s Hospital

Photo by Analise Pruni St. Joseph’s Hospital has been a valued community institution in St. Paul since its founding.

While scrolling through social media last December, Norma Roberts-Hakizimana was shocked to come across a post that indicated she might be out of a job in the near future. Ms. Norma, as she is affectionately known, has been a member of the Minnesota Nurses Association for 15 years and is currently a registered nurse at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul.

Fairview Health Services, which owns St. Joseph’s and several other hospitals including Bethesda Hospital, has been reducing beds, discussing staff cuts, and allegedly considering closing the hospitals after multi-million dollar losses in operating costs.

“Oh my gosh, what’s going on? We can’t let this happen!” said Ms. Norma, who contacted her elected officials and peers on the Minnesota Nurses Association after reading posts suggesting the hospitals will be closed. She has lived in the nearby community of Frogtown for 17 years.

St. Joseph’s, Minnesota’s oldest hospital, was opened by the Sisters of St. Joseph Carondelet in 1853 and is known for its mental health services. There has been considerable concern about what effect a possible closing of these health institutions would have on the surrounding communities and workforce as evidenced by social media campaigns and town hall forums denouncing any effort to close the hospitals. Community members have implored elected officials to do something.

Ward 1 St. Paul City Council Member Dai Thao, whose ward borders St. Joseph’s to the northwest and includes Bethesda Hospital, was just as shocked as everyone else to hear that the hospitals might shut down.

“I was very surprised. Usually, when a hospital or something of that magnitude wants to close down or make drastic changes, they would reach out to us and say, ‘Hey, this is our problem,’” Thao said.

In an effort to bring the issue to light, the St. Paul City Council passed a resolution on February 12 expressing their commitment to keeping St. Joseph’s and Bethesda hospitals open, as well as requesting transparency from the Fairview board of directors and CEO James Hereford.

“We wanted the public to know that this was a serious situation,” Thao said. “We worked with the coalitions, the nurses, the advocates and stakeholders and then gathered support from the seven council members.” He added that he is hopeful they can come up with a solution together now that Fairview is finally coming to the table with honest conversations.

St. Joseph’s is located near Catholic Charities’ Higher Ground emergency shelter facility, the St. Paul Opportunity Center and the Dorothy Day Residence, all of which serve disadvantaged community members and those most in need. 

Frogtown resident Carthell Broadway, whose sister works at St. Joseph’s, was dismayed to hear about the potential closings. “Well, shoot, it’s going to be drastic [if it closes],” Broadway said. “How can they close such a place that does so much care for low-income families and the community?”

Another nearby resident, Habtamu Ayana, described his dismay at the news and concern for the hospital’s workforce. They had provided excellent care to a friend of his who recently had heart surgery. “When people are losing their jobs, it’s desperate,” Ayana said. “Also there’s hopelessness in the community.”

Ms. Norma stayed hopeful amidst a noticeably changed and anxious hospital atmosphere after staff heard the initial rumors and some feared immediate closures and loss of jobs. She attended meetings while the workers’ union and several other groups fought adamantly for the hospitals to stay open, while also demanding more transparency from stakeholders.

“I think seeing the elected officials getting involved [helps], and so many people speaking up to defend the fact that you can’t just close a hospital,” Ms. Norma said. “It is part of St. Paul, and it serves more than St. Paul, including Bethesda.”

While talks are expected to continue, the ultimate fate of these hospitals, their patients and workers remains unseen. But representatives from Fairview insist no final decisions have been made.

“No decision has been made on the closure of St. Joseph’s Hospital,” stated Allie Hafner, Fairview’s senior communications director. “Health care is facing an affordability crisis.

“For far too long, the rising cost of health care has been passed on to patients and their families. Fairview is expecting the effects of this nationwide macroeconomic trend and must make decisions to ensure Fairview is well-positioned to provide quality care to its patients now and for the long term,” Hafner said.

According to Fairview, the health care system is trying to partner with community agencies to keep all hospital and clinic doors open. The Fairview Foundation has contributed $1.5 million to St. Paul-based Open Cities Health Center, which recently faced closure because of a lack of funding.

 “Open Cities Health Center plays an important role as a primary care provider for low-income, uninsured and underinsured patients,” said John Swanholm, vice president for community advancement and president of the foundation.  “This contribution will help improve the health of St. Paul by assuring continuity of care for more than 10,000 patients served by Open Cities Health Center as the clinic restructures will help maintain the ecosystem.”

Ms. Norma said she has been informed that over the next several weeks there will be “seniority bidding” for open positions within HealthEast’s sections of Fairview. “Right now I will be riding it out,” she said. “I’ll come to work, and when the doors are locked and the lights are off, I will know then.”

She implores Fairview and policymakers to recognize that the community needs local access to quality health care without having to drive out to suburbs or elsewhere to be accommodated. “Patients are not numbers, and employees at the HealthEast System, we’re not numbers,” she said.

“We have faces and we are not just dollar signs.”

Brandi Phillips also contributed to this story.