DHS unable to open investigation on HSHS

EAU CLAIRE — In a response to Eau Claire City Attorney Stephen Nick’s letter asking for an investigation into HSHS, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services said they do not have the authority.

DHS Secretary-designee Kirsten Johnson in a letter sent to Nick said, while they agree with the concerns about the surprising and quick closure of the Hospital Sisters Health System hospitals, they cannot set up an investigation into the health system.

HSHS announced on January 22 it would be closing HSHS Sacred Heart and HSHS St. Joseph’s hospitals. The hospitals closed earlier than expected on March 22.

In early April, Nick sent a letter to the DHS asking them to investigate whether the Hospital Sisters Health System is able to remain licensed in Wisconsin with its current leadership after their handling of the closures.

In his letter, Nick said the DHS is in charge of hospitals and can revoke their license to practice in the state if they aren’t following their regulations. He urged them to investigate HSHS and its current leader, HSHS Chief Executive Officer and President Damond Boatwright.

Nick, in his letter, said Boatwright and HSHS had many responsibilities that they did not meet, including being transparent about the hospital’s ability to continue.

“HSHS CEO Damond Boatwright said that HSHS considered the closure for 18 months to 2 years prior to a public announcement,” said Nick. “This left patients without needed healthcare and employees without jobs on less than 60 days’ notice.”

According to Johnson, the DHS has to look into three sources to decide if they can do an investigation, including Wisconsin Statute 50, DHS 124, and the Medicare Conditions of Participation.

“None of those sources of authority currently contain any timing requirements for hospital closure notifications nor any conditions regarding a hospital’s financial fitness,” said Johnson. “They also do not allow us to open an investigation into the behavior or decision-making of a hospital’s CEO absent an allegation that the CEO’s actions constitute a violation of the Medicare Conditions of Participation.”

Johnson said Medicare Conditions of Participation have a specific section for the rules of a hospital CEO which say that the hospital’s governing body needs to set up a CEO to manage the hospital.

There are no other specific requirements in the section for hospital CEOs, said a DHS spokesperson.

The closure left the area “scrambling” to find ways to provide many different types of care including cancer, behavioral health, and labor and delivery services, said Nick.

“The 60 day notice period only had to be provided to meet federal notice requirements for job layoffs,” said Nick. “Our healthcare laws don’t even require that. We need to expect and require more from our healthcare systems for the protection of our residents’ access to healthcare.”

Nick also said in his letter that, if the closures didn’t violate any laws, then consideration should be put into changing them.

“We understand your interest in evaluating where state law could be updated to avoid a similar situation in the future and would ask you to work directly with the governor’s office and legislators on this topic,” said Johnson.

Nick said he was “heartened” to see the DHS have similar concerns to governments and communities in the area.

“The manner of closure and lack of forthrightness by HSHS and its senior leadership was inexcusable, but that is done. Now, we need to act promptly to restore healthcare services to our area residents,” said Nick.

One thing to focus on is acquiring the $15 million established for Western Wisconsin healthcare, said Nick.

The bill was partially vetoed and signed by Governor Tony Evers away from its original intention, which was more focused on Eau Claire and Chippewa counties’ emergency departments. The Joint Committee on Finance has yet to release the funds and senate Republicans have recently voted to overturn the veto but need the Wisconsin State Assembly’s participation to do so.

“We also need the Governor and legislators, state and federal, to stop pointing partisan fingers at each other and address the serious issues of healthcare in the Chippewa Valley and in our state,” said Nick. “We need the state Joint Finance Committee to release the approved $15 million in state funding now to Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls, and to other cities that lost critical medical facilities in the HSHS and Prevea closings, so we can rebuild our healthcare system here in the Chippewa Valley.”