Ascension to halt surgical, inpatient medical care at Milwaukee hospital in low-income neighborhood

Milwaukee-based Wheaton Franciscan-St. Joseph Hospital, part of Ascension Wisconsin, will stop providing surgical and inpatient medical care as part of a long-term plan to shore up finances and transform the hospital's role in the primarily low-income neighborhood, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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, which is phase 1 of Ascension's long-term plan, would leave no general acute care hospital north of downtown Milwaukee, an area plagued with widespread health disparities. 

The hospital will continue to operate its emergency department and neonatal intensive care unit. In addition, it will still offer obstetric care, gynecology services and primary care. 

Patients who visit the hospital's emergency department and need additional care will be transferred to Milwaukee-based Columbia St. Mary's, an Ascension hospital located 5.6 miles southeast of St. Joseph. 

"The [surgical and inpatient] services will be provided at our other city hospital," Bernie Sherry, senior vice president who oversees the Wisconsin market of St. Louis-based Ascension Health, told Becker's Hospital Review. "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."

Between fiscal year 2012 and fiscal year 2016, the hospital recorded a total loss of $81.9 million. As a result of the consistent losses, Ascension Wisconsin has been slowly reducing its services for several years. The latest decision to end inpatient and surgical medical services at the hospital was made after an 18-month review of Ascension Wisconsin's market and finances.

As part of phase 2 of Ascension's long-term strategic plan for the St. Joseph's campus, the health system is seeking city, county and state partners to lease out available space in the hospital once the surgical and inpatient services are transitioned.

"We will have excess space in the facility so we are inviting partners to join Ascension in this area to address many of the other social determinants of health … this holistic approach will have a greater impact [on] people in the neighborhood than just providing what was there before," Mr. Sherry told Becker's, stressing that Ascension is committed to staying in the St. Joseph neighborhood.

Mr. Sherry explained that these community partners who lease the space could help provide residents with housing, education and job opportunities.

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