Op-ed: Merger puts profits ahead of health

By Jamie Gulley, Mary C. Turner and Gary Wertish

Published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Dec, 13, 2022

In Minnesota, we believe in caring for our families. No matter what part of the state we live in, how much money we have in our pockets or the color of our skin, we strive to make our state a leader in ensuring families have the health care they need to be safe and
Minnesota is proud to be home to some of the most respected health care organizations in America. As leaders of the state’s two largest health care unions and president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, we believe strongly in our state’s long history of charitable,
nonprofit hospitals that are meant to put the health of Minnesotans ahead of health care profits.
It is because we believe in this mission so strongly that we are unified in our opposition to the proposed merger of Sanford Health and M Health Fairview.
Ten years ago, former Attorney General Lori Swanson had this exact same merger in front of her; she rejected it because it wasn’t right for Minnesotans. In the last decade, the industry has consolidated even more and, according to the Minnesota Department of
Health, health care costs skyrocketed 15% between 2016 and 2020. The situation is in many ways worse now than it was then.
Our organizations represent tens of thousands of Minnesotans who work at health care facilities or depend on them for care. We are concerned about this massive merger combining one of the Twin Cities’ largest health systems with one the country’s largest
rural health systems. Minnesotans deserve better than a health care system dominated by an organization, South Dakota’s Sanford, that recently paid out a $49.5 million golden parachute to their disgraced former CEO after he spread medical disinformation.
We have much work to do in order to make our institutions live up to their missions here in Minnesota, and making them bigger, less accountable and more corporate isn’t
the way to do it. We don’t think any of our members are sitting at home thinking, “I wish health care would become more corporate and distant.”
In just the last three years, M Health Fairview closed two hospitals in the middle of a pandemic, including the state’s only dedicated COVID-19 hospital, at the same time that CEO James Hereford took a 90% raise to more than $3.5 million in annual compensation. This increased distance from the charitable/nonprofit hospital model
means higher costs for patients, lower wages for workers and less healthy communities.
The only people who seem to benefit are the already overpaid CEOs. We also need to note that it feels important to recognize that states have different values, and if we believe in Minnesota being a leader in health care, we shouldn’t be sending decisions out of the state. The “M Health” part of M Health Fairview highlights the part of the organization that hosts the University of Minnesota’s world renowned medical school. This move would mean an institution built and supported by Minnesota taxpayers would now face decisions made by someone who has no ties to our state.
Experience with big health care mergers suggests this will result in even higher pay for corporate CEOs, lower wages for the essential workers who provide care at these facilities, and even higher prices for patients. In fact, one analysis found that when hospitals are acquired by an out-of-market hospital system it leads not only to increased prices at the acquired hospital, but at nearby competitors as well.
Our members, whether health care workers or farmers who rely on the care provided by them, deserve a health system that cares about the health and safety of our families. This merger will not accomplish that.
This merger would boost CEO pay but wouldn’t help our families. It would undermine our state’s important work fighting to make nonprofit/charitable hospitals live up to their missions. It would send decisions about institutions and issues we care about
deeply in our state to someone in a neighboring state — someone who we have no reason to believe would stand for what Minnesotans want and need.
We are thankful that Attorney General Keith Ellison is taking time to listen to Minnesotans about this merger, which is critical to the health and well-being of thousands in our state and beyond. We hope Minnesotans will speak out in the coming weeks at online and in-person listening sessions (or submit comments online) about
what unites us: the need for affordable health care, good jobs and leaders who care more about patients than profits.
The health care workers and farmers of our organizations fight every day for what is best for Minnesota families. We care for and feed our state. We believe that Minnesota can and must be a leader in the health care field. The proposed merger of Sanford and M Health Fairview would move us in the wrong direction.
Jamie Gulley is president, SEIU Healthcare Minnesota & Iowa. Mary C. Turner is president, Minnesota Nurses Association. Gary Wertish is president, Minnesota Farmers Union.