United Hospital System expressed interest in wake of Aurora’s decision to close O.B. department
By Ed Nadolski
Editor in Chief
Officials with United Hospital System of Kenosha and the City of Burlington are in talks that could lead to the construction of a second hospital in Burlington.
Mayor Bob Miller and Ric Schmidt, president and CEO of United, confirmed Tuesday the sides have met twice and are interested in pursuing further talks until they decide whether a new medical facility is feasible here.
The discussions are direct fallout of the recent decision by Aurora Health Care to close the obstetrics department at Aurora Memorial Hospital of Burlington.
Miller initially lobbied Aurora officials to reverse their decision, saying labor and delivery services are vital to the community’s health and prosperity. However, after Aurora declined citing sustainability issues, Miller followed through on a pledge to seek alternatives for the community.
It turns out he didn’t have to search far or wide.
Miller said a United Hospital System official contacted him after reading a story in this newspaper regarding his intentions.
Miller conceded Tuesday it was “not a direction I wanted to take, but for the betterment of the city and on behalf of its citizens I needed to seek alternatives.”
Miller said he’s most excited about the possibility of the community having a greater input in the services offered.
“It would be a hybrid community hospital with a local board of directors that would have a say in the operation of the hospital,” he said.
Both Miller and Schmidt stressed the discussions are preliminary, but they also expressed excitement over the possibilities for the city and United.
“We’re hopeful, but we’re looking at it from the perspective that we want what’s right for Burlington,” Schmidt said. “This is a non-pressure situation. We want both sides to feel good about going forward.”
United Hospital system operates two hospital/clinic campuses – Kenosha Medical Center near downtown Kenosha and St. Catherine’s Medical Center on Highway 50 near Interstate Highway 94 – as well as four standalone clinics, including two in Kenosha and one each in Paddock Lake and Gurnee, Ill.
United has about 300 physicians, 80 of whom are system employees with the others independent contractors.
The hospital system, according to Schmidt, consists of three material partners: United (the former Kenosha Medical Center), which controls 67.5 percent of the operation; Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare, which accounts for 22.5 percent; and Froedtert Health of Milwaukee, 10 percent.
The affiliation with Froedtert enables United physicians to refer patients to the Milwaukee hospital for highly specialized treatments, Schmidt said.
United Hospital System is guided by a local board of directors, which, among others, includes the corporate leaders of Kenosha-based Jockey International and Snap On Tools, according to Schmidt.
He said that is the same model the system would follow if a facility is built in Burlington.
“We wouldn’t do it without (a local board),” Schmidt said. “That’s the only way we’d want to work in any community.”
The big question
While those who opposed Aurora’s decision to close the obstetrics department at Memorial Hospital are likely thrilled by the idea of health care competition in Burlington, the big question is whether the Burlington area can sufficiently support two hospitals.
Aurora is the state’s largest health care system and is Burlington’s largest employer with roughly 600 employees at four local facilities – Memorial Hospital, Burlington Clinic, Vince Lombardi Cancer Clinic and Aurora Wellness Center.
Mayor Miller said he is well aware of that fact and admits to moving forward with more than a little bit of trepidation.
Schmidt, who is well acquainted with Aurora – St. Catherine’s Medical Center is directly across Highway 50 from Aurora Kenosha Medical Center – said he sees this situation not in a competitive light but as an opportunity for United to grow.
“As the market changes, that area between I-94 and Burlington will grow,” he said.
But, Schmidt added, “We’re not aggressive. We want to be where folks want us to be.”
Adding a hospital in Burlington expands United’s potential patient pool and could allow the system to add doctors in sub-specialties that currently have just two physicians. Having three doctors, Schmidt said, reduces the amount of time each doctor must be on call and improves job satisfaction.
“It’s better for everyone – the doctors and the patients,” he said.
Miller said he has been looking at several sites in the city that could accommodate a hospital, including at least one city-owned parcel.
The mayor envisions the city as simply a facilitator in the process, but said he’s aware some municipalities have gone as far as setting up public-private partnerships to ensure a sufficient level of health care for residents.
While that level of involvement doesn’t seem likely in this situation, Miller said it remains to be seen what the city’s role will be.
Schmidt said United is in a good position to consider facility expansion. The system will be debt-free by the summer of 2014.
Both Miller and Schmidt said the talks could lead to the conclusion that another hospital is not feasible in Burlington.
But that didn’t appear to dampen the enthusiasm both men expressed toward continued talks.