More than 50 University of Minnesota medical students braved sub-zero temperatures to rally outside of the Health Sciences Education Center Friday afternoon in opposition to the proposed merger of Fairview Health Services and Sanford Health.
Medical students, physicians, Minneapolis City Council Member Robin Wonsley, who represents the campus area, and others cited concerns of prices increasing for patients, hospitals and clinics closing, and a decline in medical school research and primary care rankings as main reasons they're against the planned merger.
"While our medical school will be heavily impacted by this proposed merger, we have been consistently out of this conversation that directly impacts our future both as healthcare students and someday, providers," said first year medical student Christina Lan at the rally. "When I decided to attend medical school, I did so with the goal of becoming an excellent physician who cares deeply about her patients' health and all of the factors that contribute to it. For this reason, I cannot be complicit in allowing corporate greed to threaten our medical school, its research or my future."
The planned merger of Sioux Falls, S.D.-based Sanford and Minneapolis-based Fairview was announced in November, immediately drawing scrutiny from the Minnesota Attorney General's office, which regulates charities and investigates potential monopolies for anti-trust violations.
If the merger goes through, Sanford will become Fairview's parent company, with Sanford chief executive officer Bill Gassen replacing Fairview CEO James Hereford after one year.
The prospect of handing the state's nationally-recognized teaching hospitals to out-of-state owners has drawn opposition from the leaders of the University of Minnesota and its medical school, who have raised the possibility of buying the U of M Medical Center back from Fairview with heavy state assistance. Fairview acquired the U of M teaching hospitals in 1997.
Fairview spokesperson Aimee Jordan said in a statement Friday "nothing will change" as a result of the merger.
"We believe that continued partnership with the University of Minnesota will benefit our patients and care in Minnesota," she said. "We cannot speak for the University of Minnesota, but both CEOs desire an ongoing academic affiliation between the University of Minnesota Medical School, M Physicians, and the combined system, and we are committed to continuing discussions to this end."
Speaking to the potential impact of the proposed merger on the quality of education at the U of M Medical School, medical students noted Friday that the school ranks third in the nation for primary care and trains more than 70% of Minnesota's physicians.
U.S. News and World Report ranks the top 124 medical schools in the country, said second-year medical student Allison Leopold in a written statement, "and Sanford School of Medicine doesn't even make the list. If we merge, not only will our ranking plummet, but so will our longstanding excellence in primary care."
Jordan said in a statement the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine is independent from Sanford Health and not involved in the merger.
The proposed merger has raised questions about the fate of the M Health Fairview brand, a contractual agreement between Fairview, the University of Minnesota Physicians and the university itself that is currently scheduled to expire in 2026 but could be extended this year. If the merger comes to fruition, Sanford will abide by that agreement, investing $1 billion yearly to support the U of M until the contract expires.
"As a combined system, Fairview and Sanford Health are committed to honoring the current agreements through their expiration in 2026 including the level of funding, clinical partnership and teaching mission," said Jordan. "The affiliation agreement will continue to be governed by a local, Minnesota-based board. And, the University remains independent and will continue to make its own decision about its future."
But past 2026, Lan said medical students will risk losing their current access to hands-on training and the resources to conduct important research.
"Research is absolutely essential to our identity as a school," said Lan during the rally. "Students are not only able to enhance their learning by participating in groundbreaking research, but they can actively contribute to advancing the field in order to better serve our patients, our communities. This tool will be jeopardized if this merger is to succeed."
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison last week asked the two nonprofit health networks to delay a planned March 31 closing date so as to have more time to evaluate details, including public considerations about potential pricing and patient impacts.
During the last of Ellison's scheduled listening sessions held Tuesday in Grand Rapids, Gassen said he had "no plans to close Minnesota facilities or reduce access to care" following the merger. However, Lisa Reed, a registered nurse who's worked for Fairview for 28 years, said she believes "years down the road, it will happen."
"I find it hard to hear from both Bill Gassen and James Hereford that nothing will change during this merger," said Reed. "We have seen time and again that mergers result in closures, reducing patient access to care and putting nurses and other workers at risk for layoffs and lowering wages."
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