Ascension's decision to cut back services stirs debate among Milwaukee officials

Milwaukee officials are urging Ascension Wisconsin to postpone its controversial scale back of services at Milwaukee-based Wheaton Franciscan-St. Joseph Hospital, which primarily serves a low-income neighborhood, according to Wisconsin Public Radio.

St. Joseph Hospital, which primarily serves patients covered by Medicare and Medicaid, plans to shutter its surgical and medical units, slowly sifting out inpatient care by July 1. Roughly 51 percent of the hospital's patients are covered by Medicaid, 5 percent are uninsured and about 20 percent are covered by commercial health plans.

The closure of the surgical and medical units would leave no general acute care hospital north of downtown Milwaukee, an area plagued with widespread health disparities. Ascension, however, emphasized it is not leaving the city. Another Ascension hospital, Milwaukee-based Columbia St. Mary's, is located 5.6 miles southeast of St. Joseph's.

"We aren't abandoning where low-income [patients] live, we are actually strengthening our ability to serve the people that live in the city of Milwaukee by combining the efforts of Columbia St. Mary's and St. Joe's," Bernie Sherry, senior vice president who oversees the Wisconsin market of St. Louis-based Ascension Health, told Becker's Hospital Review.

Since Ascension disclosed it would stop providing surgical and inpatient care at St. Joseph Hospital April 5, the health system has received criticism from multiple city officials and residents.

"We have an economic model now where if you have money, you're going to get the best healthcare in the world, but if you're poor, guess what? Get on a bus, hopefully you can get to a hospital five miles away and maybe you'll get healthcare," Milwaukee Alderman Michael Murphy told WPR. Mr. Murphy also emphasized that the implications of reducing services at St. Joseph go beyond the individual hospital.

Milwaukee Alderman Bob Donovan is asking Ascension to delay the closure of these units by one year to collect community feedback and find ways to mitigate the loss of services prior to phasing them out.

"If this request is rejected, I have already contacted the Office of the City Attorney and have asked them to watch carefully the process followed by Ascension to ensure that at a minimum, the corporation is in full and exact compliance with applicable state and federal laws and regulations," said Mr. Donovan, according to WPR.

St. Joseph is part of Milwaukee-based Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare, which merged with St. Louis-based Ascension in 2016.

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