The Potluck

Unions, dean of University of Minnesota Medical School oppose merger between Fairview and Sanford Health

By: - January 10, 2023 10:41 pm

Sanford Health CEO Bill Gassen, left, and Fairview Health CEO James Hereford listen to public comments on a potential merger between the two health systems. Photo by Grace Deng/Minnesota Reformer.

Opposition to the potential merger between health care systems Sanford Health and Fairview Health Services is gaining steam. 

After several major unions rallied against the deal Tuesday, the dean of University of Minnesota’s medical school, Dr. Jakub Tolar, announced at a packed public session, organized by Attorney General Keith Ellison, that he does not support the merger — at least without university involvement. 

“We can only support action that aligns with our vision — your vision — our vision for health care in Minnesota,” said Tolar, who received uproarious applause following his speech.

Ellison’s office is investigating if the merger complies with state and federal laws, and he said he wants to hear from the public before taking stronger action. At the meeting, he said he wanted to make sure Sanford and Fairview “have their say,” as well. 

Organizations representing Black and Latino communities expressed support for the merger, calling Fairview a close partner in their work offering basic health services and COVID-19 vaccines.

A proposed 2013 merger 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. 

Both Sanford and Fairview’s CEOs were in attendance at the Ellison event Tuesday and pledged that a combined company would maintain a patient-centered outlook, while the merger would allow Sanford to expand care. 

The public in attendance wasn’t convinced. Representatives of unions including the Minnesota Nurses Association and SEIU Healthcare Minnesota and other members of the public expressed concern that the merger would exacerbate health disparities and negatively impact reproductive health care, gender affirming care, rural hospitals and general quality of care. Sanford and Fairview’s CEOs said the companies are committed to gender affirming care and reproductive healthcare.

Fairview’s CEO, James Hereford, said Fairview will “continue to honor and respect our collective bargaining agreements” with unions. Health care union leaders and members said Fairview has not respected their most recent contract. Several nurses said they have watched hospitals deteriorate after Fairview took over. 

While both Fairview and Sanford are nonprofit, union representatives said they don’t think Sanford and Fairview are any different from for-profit organizations. 

“Nonprofit is a misnomer in health care. That’s just a tax status,” said Rose Roach, executive director of the Minnesota Nurses Association. “They’re still about the bottom line.” 

Last month, DFL Gov. Tim Walz told the Star Tribune he is more open to a merger between the two hospital systems than he was a decade ago. Walz’s team did not make him available for an updated comment Tuesday. 

The Attorney General’s Office has been encouraging the public to submit comments about the merger through an online form. Ellison said they’ve already received an overwhelming response. 

Update: A Fairview spokeswoman responded that Tolar’s claim that the university has not been fully involved in the merger talks is false. Tolar, she said, “is a member of the Fairview Health Services Board of Directors and (was) made aware of the possibility of a partnership with Sanford at the exact time as every other board member (with the exception of the chair). To imply the university has not been an active participant in discussions regarding our combination with Sanford is false and disingenuous.” 

A university spokeswoman said the Fairview statement “lacks key information.” 

“The University representatives on Fairview’s board were notified and shown a fully formulated letter of intent in August. As stated (recently) both CEOs Hereford and Gassen had been in discussions since May. To reiterate, we were not a part of developing the letter of intent that we first became aware of in August, nor are we included as a party in it,” she said. 

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Grace Deng
Grace Deng

Grace Deng was a reporting intern with the Minnesota Reformer. They studied legal studies and Asian American Studies at Northwestern University. The Seattle native has previously been a statehouse intern with USA TODAY Network Ohio and an editorial fellow with Washingtonian Magazine.