DULUTH — More than 800 nurses have signed a Minnesota Nurses Association petition to express their concerns about Essentia acquiring CommonSpirit Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI) facilities in Minnesota and North Dakota.

Several nurses from Essentia and CHI spoke at a news conference Thursday, May 6, about the lack of reassurance they have received from the health care institutions while negotiations for acquisition remain underway.

“Throughout this process, nurses have repeatedly asked management of both CHI and Essentia to guarantee continued access to services in these communities and to agree to honor existing contracts and benefits for workers at these facilities, and nurses have been repeatedly ignored or told no,” said Chris Rubesch, a nurse at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth and first vice president of the MNA.

The petition, which has been submitted to both Essentia and CommonSpirit leadership, asks for a full and transparent response about what protections will be in place for both employees and patients when ownership changes. It says the MNA and communities CHI serves have concerns about possible limitations for patient choice of provider or elimination of services, and asks for consistent employment standards.

Leslie McKamey, an emergency room nurse at CHI St. Alexius in Bismarck, N.D., said CHI has not responded to nurses' questions about how the change in ownership will affect patients, especially because the hospital has already experienced major shortages and cuts to staff since CHI took over the hospital.

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"We’ve asked if they’ll guarantee the same level of services and how will they be provided and there’s no commitment," McKamey said.

Tristin Eastvold, a registered nurse at Essentia Health-Moose Lake, experienced the transfer of ownership when Mercy Hospital was acquired by Essentia last summer. She said between layoffs and staff quitting due to poor treatment, they have been forced to close some units of the hospital to new patients.

Eastvold also said Essentia did not recognize the union contract at Mercy Hospital, so members have been in negotiations for more than a year and have lost bonuses, banked sick leave and scheduling agreements, plus have seen a reduction in the company's retirement contributions.

“This is after Moose Lake was promised that Essentia taking over would be a good move for the community," Eastvold said. "They promised more services and not less, and stability and not instability over contracts and staffing.”

In a statement, Essentia Health said the Moose Lake facility has added new services, including urology and cardiology, plus board-certified emergency medicine physicians.

"(S)trong patient volume levels at Essentia Health-Moose Lake and the addition of new services highlight improved access to the high-quality care we provide for our patients close to home," Essentia said in the statement. "When we affiliated with the former Mercy Hospital in August 2020, we extended offers to all Mercy direct patient-care staff who met our basic requirements. A small number of nurses represented by the MNA chose not to apply or voluntarily left Essentia after affiliation. We are actively recruiting to fill those positions."

Retired nurse and MNA member Jean Forman said other health system acquisitions across Minnesota have resulted in the loss of services. For example, Forman said the Mayo Clinic's takeover along the Interstate 90 corridor closed the Albert Lea labor and delivery unit, forcing area patients to drive to Austin or Rochester for care.

“The community hospital was always a real super-source of pride for the community," Forman said. "The Mayo purchase of the services there was supposed to be a real boost for the community and it has been nothing but a short sale of services for people to adjust how they will seek their care.”

Cameron Sharp, an emergency department nurse at CHI St. Gabriel's in Little Falls, Minn., said he worries that the same might happen at his hospital. There are already vacancies that need to be filled there, he said, and nurses worry that their contracts or positions may not be renewed under the new ownership.

“One nurse more or less means quite a bit of difference in a small emergency room," Sharp said. "We need to know that the hospital is important enough to stay here and the staff here are important to keep the hospital going.”

Negotiations are ongoing since Essentia and CommonSpirit signed the letter of intent in early January. Essentia said in its statement that a public timeline for the acquisition is not yet finalized.

"If an agreement is reached with CommonSpirit Health, we believe it may expand employment opportunities for our colleagues across our entire system," Essentia said in the statement.