When Monica D. was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017, she went to Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire for radiation treatment and surgeries. She said the staff made her feel included in her care and brought her a lot of comfort.
“Sacred Heart is close to my heart,” Monica D. said.
Nurse Cheryl Berg feels the same and knows her patients do too. When she moved back to the area in 2000, she had offers to work at two different hospitals, but chose Sacred Heart because it had a good reputation. More than two decades later, she says it’s the greatest place she’s ever worked.
“The patients I take care of, they just always reiterate how this is the only place they’ll ever come to,” Berg said. “I’ve only ever gotten positive feedback from patients, that this is where they are so glad we’re here in town because this is where they feel most safe.”
Sacred Heart Hospital, along with St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls, both owned by Hospital Sisters Health System, will soon close its doors. Nineteen clinics owned by Prevea Health will close as well. In a statement in January, HSHS said, “This difficult decision comes after prolonged operational and financial stress related to lingering impacts of the pandemic, inflation, workforce constraints, local market challenges and other industry-wide trends.”
On Thursday, the OakLeaf Medical Network announced it has asked to enter negotiations with HSHS to purchase the properties. No sale has been made official, however, and the timeline is uncertain.
If the facilities are left to close, more than 1,400 employees will be out of work. Patients and community members are worried about their future access to health care.
“What if I have another cancer issue? Am I going to be able to get the care that I can, that I did six years ago? I don’t know,” said Monica D., who asked that only the initial of her last name be used for privacy reasons.
All of the facilities are expected to close by April 21, except for residency clinics which will close by the end of June. Some of the locations are shuttering earlier, though. St. Joseph’s will close by March 22, according to WEAU 13 News. Berg, a nurse in Sacred Heart’s post-anesthesia care unit, said the hospital has already stopped scheduling surgery and will now only do emergency operations.
The hospitals and clinics provide a range of services to rural communities, including urgent care, cancer treatment, behavioral health and substance abuse care, and family medicine.
Across the country, more than 136 rural hospitals closed from 2010-2021 — 19 of those in 2020 — according to the American Hospital Association. More than 600 rural hospitals are at risk of closing, according to the Center for Healthcare Quality & Payment Reform.
In Wisconsin, rural communities have less access to doctors than urban areas because there are fewer health care facilities, and patients often have to travel far, especially for specialized care. According to a 2017 report from the Wisconsin Office of Rural Health, there were roughly 1,480 residents for every primary care doctor in rural counties. Marshfield Clinic Health System announced in early January that some of its clinics and programs would close and 3% of its staff would be furloughed.
The sudden news of the hospital and clinic closures surprised HSHS and Prevea employees, who are now trying to figure out what comes next for them and their patients.
“I was in shock. I was in disbelief. The tears came right away because I couldn’t even believe this was happening. It wasn’t anything I was expecting to be going through right now. We never saw it coming,” said Berg, who grew up in Eau Claire. She’s turning 65 next week, and while she hoped to work for a few more years, she’s now weighing retirement.
Nurse Brittany Sheldon, who works in both the post-anesthesia care unit and the short stay unit, said that after they heard the news, nobody could think straight.
“We were scrambling to find our words and relying on each other to double and triple check whatever we were doing because nobody was firing on all cylinders, our brains became mush. Some of us were walking the halls with red eyes and tear stains on our face the rest of the day. We desperately tried to keep it together in front of our patients though, and that was tough,” she said in an email.
Sheldon went home and applied for over a dozen jobs, worried about how hard it would be to find a job in the area now that so many health care workers would be looking for work. “I had a pit in my stomach and felt nauseous,” she said.
Monica D. questioned the way the closures were handled, noting that a city as big as Eau Claire could have done something and that the company should have alerted the community to what was going on: “I think things could have stopped this from happening, and I’m not sure what was done to stop it.”
HSHS said in its announcement: “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.”
Patients may now need to find new doctors or travel far distances to access care.
Berg is worried about how much her own health care will cost now that she won’t be covered by the hospital’s employee insurance program. Her husband suffers from pulmonary hypertension after having contracted COVID-19, which hospitalized him for three months and caused him to have a stroke. The medication he relies on is expensive.
“I’m really worried about that — how much is going to be covered, what we’re going to have to pay. I know it’s going to be a lot more money out of our pockets,” she said.
Sheldon and her boyfriend had discussed trying to have a child in the next year. She’s nearly 34, and she says that because of a blood clotting disorder that runs in her family, her pregnancy could be high-risk, and she’s worried about accessing quality care.
“The closures feel like a humongous wrench in our plans,” she said.
Mayo Clinic’s hospital is the same distance from Monica D. as Sacred Heart is, but she’s worried about how busy it will be now that it has to absorb more patients: “Are they going to stop seeing patients because they have too many on their roster? So then where are you going to have to go? Are you going to have to go to Green Bay, are you going to have to go to Rochester Clinic in Rochester? There’s going to be a trickle-down thing going on with all these closures.”
Coffee shops, hair stylists and plant stores are offering discounts to employees impacted by the closures. Leinenkugel’s Leinie Lodge in Chippewa Falls is offering free beer, and Marshfield Medical Center in Eau Claire is holding job fairs.
But the community is still hoping for what Sheldon called a “miracle.”
“I’m hoping that someone comes rescues Sacred Heart,” Monica D. said. “But that’s probably not going to happen because it kind of seems like it’s late in the game.”