Wis. first responders reeling after sudden news of hospital closings
St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls, Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire and all Prevea Health locations in western Chippewa Valley will be permanently closed
By Audrey Korte
The Chippewa Herald
CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. — Residents and first responders from Chippewa Falls are reeling after learning two major hospitals in the region will close in April, followed a short time later by the shuttering of multiple Prevea Health locations in western Wisconsin.
HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls , HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire and all Prevea Health locations in western Wisconsin’s Chippewa Valley will permanently close during a “complete exit from the western Wisconsin region,” according to a press release issued Monday.
Chippewa Falls residents were upset by the news.
“As a Chippewa Falls resident, I’m feeling shocked like everybody else. We knew something was going on, but we thought it was gonna be a good thing. It’s not a good thing,” Chippewa Falls resident Rick Flynn said Monday. “We’re hoping that this is not the end of the chapter. Maybe some other group comes in here and buys the hospital or organizes a medical team.”
Flynn, who closely follows Chippewa Falls city government, said he worries the remaining hospitals in Eau Claire are going to be overwhelmed as they try and absorb all the emergency services and day-to-day medical needs of the Chippewa Valley.
“I’m worried about those hospitals’ ability to handle so much. I’m worried about our fire department. People need an ambulance, but EMTs can’t get to them because they’re on a run to Eau Claire every five minutes. How’s that going to work?” Flynn said. “Plus how much more money is it going to cost the city having to send every emergency call to Eau Claire now?”
Officials at HSHS St. Joseph’s on Monday said they could not comment on the pending closure of the facility, its impact on staff or the community beyond a statement issued to media earlier in the day.
‘This is a mess’
Teresa Nicholson, a new resident of Chippewa Falls said she’s shocked and disappointed in the news that HSHS will close both its hospitals in the region.
“I’ve used them both. I have some chronic health conditions that require more of the expertise that HSHS Sacred Heart offers but I use HSHS St. Joseph’s for the regular stuff and now I don’t know what I’m going to do. It sounds like my doctors aren’t sure what is going to happen with us. I mean they’re willing to try and get me hooked up with other providers but this is a mess,” she said. “When I decided to move here last year one of the things I wanted was a hospital with an emergency department within five miles. Well, that’s over I guess.”
HSHS and Prevea said they have initiated a thorough and organized process to safely wind down services and to transition patient care to other providers.
“The majority of the closures are expected to be complete on or before April 21 , with the exception of the Prevea residency clinics that will close on or before June 30 ,” the release states.
The decision was driven by prolonged operational and financial stress related to lingering impacts of the pandemic, inflation, workforce constraints, local market challenges and other industry-wide trends, the release states.
Chippewa Falls Mayor Greg Hoffman said he wished the hospitals had communicated better with him and other locals who need to address rising healthcare needs in a growing community.
“They didn’t contact us. There was nothing. I heard about it from the press release and I wasn’t overly happy with it. I wish the results were different. I understand that today the world is getting harder and harder with baby boomers aging and all that. But we’ve got to figure this out,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman said he’s concerned about where people will go to get care.
“I just don’t see how we can have that. How can we sustain this? Sacred Heart covers 40% of the hospital intakes in Eau Claire. What are you gonna do with everybody? Put them on cots or in the front yard of Marshfield and Mayo?” Hoffman said.
While Hoffman and others said they had heard rumors that St. Joseph’s was reorganizing, he said he was still surprised by the announcement to close.
“I was under the impression that they were looking at some other entity to create more options. I had heard that St. Joseph’s was struggling so I wasn’t totally surprised but I had been hoping that someone would be willing to take up that role here,” Hoffman said. “And I never imagined they would close Sacred Heart and Prevea too. That’s unfathomable. It really leaves me feeling ticked off.”
Hoffman said he hopes a potential suitor may be interested to fill the new health care void in the Chippewa Falls area.
“We won’t give up,” he said. “Our work is just beginning. We have to find a way through this.”
Chippewa Falls Fire and Emergency Services will likely have to rely on Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire and Bloomer and Marshfield Clinic in Eau Claire for emergency services.
“Our medical control doctor is based out of HSHS right now,” said Chippewa Falls Fire Chief Jason Thom . “I don’t know what this looks like going forward.”
Thom said he had not heard from HSHS officials, but he is concerned about the loss of a hospital in Chippewa Falls
“A third of our patients were transported to St. Joe’s , so 1,200 patients a year are going to St. Joe’s , while the other two thirds were going straight to Eau Claire hospitals,” he said. “Those will have to be absorbed somewhere but also by going to Eau Claire with every single transport, obviously we will have an ambulance out of service for a little bit longer time and that could be serious.”
There are other concerns for the fire chief.
“We restock our medications at St. Joe’s or Sacred Heart. That’s going to have to change,” he said. “Then there’s just transport times. For city residents or those who live on the outskirts of Chippewa Falls we could transport to St. Joe’s before. There’s times we transported to St. Joe’s with very critical patients to stabilize and then take them to Eau Claire and then get him to a specialized facility. Now, I’m looking at what’s next.”
Thom said he’s also concerned about the loss of the helipad at HSHS St. Joseph’s.
“This is a lot to digest,” he said.
The closures impact nearly 1,100 HSHS and 325 Prevea staff and physicians. The organization said it will provide support services and career transition assistance, including the potential to seek positions elsewhere in the organizations, if available.
One staffer, who asked to remain unnamed, said “we are heartbroken and angry but we’re not supposed to talk to the press about it.”
While HSHS and Prevea intended to create an integrated health delivery model in western Wisconsin in 2015, its operations in the region have struggled for the past several years due to a mismatch in the supply of and demand for local health care services, said HSHS President and CEO Damond Boatwright .
“We closely considered all other options and sought strategic alternatives. After an agreement with a suitable partner did not work out, it was determined that exiting the market is the only feasible path forward,” Boatwright said.
“I lived in Chippewa most of my life and those hospitals are the backbones of the community,” Joan Dark said in an email Monday. “Where are people supposed to go? Marshfield’s pretty far away. What about ER?”
According to the American Hospital Association , 136 rural hospitals closed between 2010 to 2021, as well as a record 19 closures in 2020 alone. More than 600 rural hospitals — 30% of all rural hospitals in the country — are at risk of closing, according to the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform , because they do not have adequate revenue to cover the cost of the care provided.
“We made this decision with a heavy heart as HSHS Sacred Heart and HSHS St. Joseph’s have been treasured ministries of the Hospital Sisters for more than 140 years,” Boatwright said. “We extend our deepest gratitude to our colleagues, physicians and volunteers for their countless contributions — all of which have shaped the Hospital Sisters’ healing legacy.”
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