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Minn. nurses call for county officials to take control of hospital

Minnesota Nurses Association leaders say Hennepin Healthcare has not addressed staffing shortages, workplace safety


Jeremy Olson-Ehlert, an RN and MNA co-chair at HCMC, spoke during a press conference at Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis on Tuesday.

Leila Navidi, Star Tribune/TNS

By Christopher Magan
Star Tribune

HENNEPIN COUNTY, Minn. — Nearly four months after the Hennepin County Board implemented more financial oversight of the organization that runs HCMC, nurses say working conditions have not changed and the hospital needs new leadership.

They want commissioners to take back control of the safety-net hospital from Hennepin Healthcare System, an organization created by the County Board over a decade ago to run the county’s hospital and other health clinics.

Leaders from the Minnesota Nurses Association and other HCMC unions say Hennepin Healthcare has not done enough to address rising insurance costs, staff shortages, declining patient care and workplace safety problems. They say workers who speak up are ignored and talked down to by leadership.

“We are here after months of inaction,” Jeremy Olson-Ehlert, a registered nurse at HCMC and union leader, said during a Tuesday news conference before a County Board meeting. “We cannot keep nurses at the bedside under these conditions.”

Commissioners have the power to dissolve Hennepin Healthcare and take back oversight of HCMC and the other health clinics with a two-thirds majority vote of the County Board.

Not all caregivers think that is a good idea.

HCMC Dr. Thomas Klemond, medical staff president, agrees nurses and other workers face ongoing challenges, but he worries dissolving the organization that runs the hospital “would likely make things worse.”

HCMC, like many hospitals with a lot of poor and uninsured patients, faces serious financial and staffing shortages in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, Klemond said. He thinks the Hennepin Healthcare board, which is composed of community members, staff and local leaders, is best positioned to respond to those challenges.

“So much of what we do is not well supported by the health care system that we have,” Klemond said.

County board, hospital leaders reactHennepin Healthcare Board Chair Babette Apland said hospital leaders take the issues raised by caregivers seriously and are working to address them. She also maintained the volunteer board that currently leads Hennepin Healthcare was the best model for navigating difficult times.

“Moving away from this diverse community-based and expert leadership is not in the best interest of Minnesota’s largest safety-net health care system,” Apland said in a statement.

County Board Chair Irene Fernando said she was in the process of gathering more information about the problems nurses are raising. She acknowledged two letters nurses sent to the board in March outlining their frustrations and said follow-up meetings were in the works.

Fernando and other commissioners said it was too early to respond directly to nurses’ demands for the County Board to take back control of HCMC.

New oversight, ongoing questionsCaregivers at HCMC have been speaking up about problems since last year. A big focus is on changes hospital leaders made to insurance plans in 2023 to help close a $127 million budget shortfall.

Nurses, EMTs and other staff say those changes drove up employees’ out-of-pocket costs and will make it even harder to recruit and retain staff hospital staff. They noted HCMC has more than 100 open nursing positions.

In response to calls for more transparency, the County Board put new controls on Hennepin Healthcare when it approved its $1.5 billion annual budget in December. New guardrails included limits on layoffs and changes to executive compensation as well as a financial audit and probe of how insurance changes affect workers.

Two Hennepin Healthcare board members, including the incoming board chair, quit in December after the new oversight was approved by the county.

Analysis by county staff is ongoing, with results of the audit and benefits study expected in the coming months. Recent updates to the County Board from County Administrator David Hough noted the Hennepin Healthcare Board approved a performance review and pay raise for CEO Jennifer DeCubellis and discussed other leadership pay changes at their January meeting.

HCMC staff have criticized recent executive pay hikes, including a 15% raise DeCubellis got in 2023, as another example of problematic leadership. Hennepin Healthcare officials have said DeCubellis’ pay is competitive and that she would not accept a salary increase this year.

County leaders and the Hennepin Healthcare board held a joint quarterly meeting March 28 to discuss the hospital system’s financials and the new oversight. Most of the meeting was closed to the public, as allowed under state law to protect the hospital’s competitiveness, county officials said.

“We are not alone in the challenges we face,” Apland, Hennepin Healthcare board chair, said during the public portion. “We have a duty to adapt to these challenges and make sure Hennepin Healthcare is viable.”

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