Medical students, community protest potential merger between Sanford and Fairview
Medical students and community members gather outside of a University of Minnesota building to protest a potential merger between Sanford and Fairview. (Grace Deng/Minnesota Reformer)
MINNEAPOLIS — Medical students, health care workers and community members gathered outside a University of Minnesota building on Friday, braving a wind chill of minus 14 degrees to rally against a planned merger between Sanford Health and Fairview Health Services.
“The values of Fairview and Sanford are very different from the University of Minnesota,” said Brianna Wenande, a second-year U of M medical student who attended the protest. “We care about basic science research and helping patients, and ultimately, Sanford and Fairview … care about profits.”
Medical students at the rally said the merger could impact University of Minnesota’s standards: The top 175 medical schools are ranked by U.S. News & World Report, and Sanford School of Medicine in South Dakota doesn’t make the rankings, whereas the University of Minnesota Medical Center is the third best primary care school and the 43rd best medical school for research.
Sanford has pledged to follow through on the university’s commitments for the next two years, but students say they’re also concerned about the future of ongoing research at the university once Sanford’s pledge is up.
Austen Ott, a second-year medical student who wants to become a rural family physician, worried rural hospitals would close due to the merger.
“Closure of the hospitals out in these areas not only impacts the people who live there directly, but it has kind of a domino effect because people aren’t able to live out in these places,” Ott said.
The rally was led by medical students from Students for a National Health Plan, but health care workers from various other organizations were there in support, such as the Minnesota Nurses Association. Some people were simply there to support the cause, like Mary Pogatshnik, a 50-year-old Spanish professor at the University of Minnesota.
“Health care costs will go up for everybody,” Pogatshnik said. “A lot of people who are already rich will get richer and quality of health care will go down.”
A 2013 merger proposed between the health care giants fell apart due to opposition from former Attorney General Lori Swanson and state lawmakers. Swanson didn’t want Sanford, an out-of-state organization, to run the Fairview-owned University of Minnesota hospital and potentially use taxpayer dollars to expand into other states.
Second-year student Christina Lan, who spoke at the rally, said she doesn’t believe the CEOs because of the history of past mergers — and how much the CEOs both make. M Health Fairview’s CEO made $3.55 million in 2019 and the former Sanford CEO — who was given $49 million upon retirement in 2021 — was paid $5.1 million in 2020.
“It’s really hard for me to take the words of people who are amassing such wealth and really believe they care about the community when they’re profiting through this,” said Lan, who added that she always planned to work in Minnesota after graduation — but isn’t sure she wants to if the merger happens.
The University of Minnesota recently announced that it’s seeking to regain ownership of its health care facilities from Fairview by building a new hospital, but medical students at the rally said that it doesn’t address their concerns.
The students want Attorney General Keith Ellison to block the merger. Ellison has held several public listening sessions about the merger and has asked for a delay of the merger, but has not yet moved to block the merger entirely. Students are hope to see passage of a bill in the state Legislature (HF 402) that allows the state Department of Health to block a health care system merger if it does not “benefit the public good” or “improve health care outcomes.”
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