Milwaukee's Public Safety and Health Commission passes anti-closure resolution as pressure mounts on Ascension
Milwaukee, WI – On Friday, March 31, the Common Council’s Public Safety and Health Commission unanimously passed a resolution urging Ascension Wisconsin to reconsider the closure of the Labor and Delivery (L&D) unit at St. Francis Hospital. The St. Francis L&D was the only department of its kind within a roughly 10 mile radius. The hospital serves a predominantly Latino and immigrant community on Milwaukee's Southside, including many Spanish- and Rohingya-only speakers. The resolution also calls on Ascension Wisconsin to establish a one-year moratorium on any downsizing or service reductions at Milwaukee healthcare sites.
The Coalition to Save St. Francis Hospital mobilized representatives from its various member organizations to offer public testimony at Friday’s meeting. All speakers delivered powerful testimonies that connected various threads in this struggle. They highlighted the dangerous conditions Ascension has created inside St. Francis for its patients and workers. They spoke about the challenges the closure of the L&D unit poses for the predominantly oppressed nationality community, as well as its connections to the closures Ascension made at St. Joseph Hospital five years ago.
“Pregnant people on the south side have to find their way across town somehow, by bus or ambulance, the barriers of cost and time be darned. After all, that’s not Ascension’s problem. Ground ambulance bills are the patient’s responsibility, even after the No Surprises Act became law. It is Ascension’s responsibility to provide a public service, though, and that responsibility is why Ascension can operate as a non-profit,” said Jamie Lucas, the Executive Director of Wisconsin Federation of Nurses & Health Professionals (WFNHP) 5000, in the opening statement of the committee meeting.
Lucas continued, “Despite this obligation to the public, Ascension made this decision to cut services in private. In fact, they’ve failed to provide any proof that they informed patients of this supposedly well thought-out, clinical decision they claim to be validated by the data.”
Many allies of the workers and community spoke as well, including representatives from immigrants' rights and faith-based organizations.
“We have a very diverse community [on the Southside] and we're very passionate about these sorts of issues. And as constituents there, we've paid a lot of money in taxes to this hospital, so how is it that they're going to slash these services that we deserve,” said Mario Ramirez of Voces de la Frontera with English translation provided by Alan Chavoya of the Milwaukee Alliance.
Reverend Joseph Jackson of Milwaukee Inner City Allied for Hope (MICAH) spoke next: “We are concerned that the Labor and Delivery unit at St. Francis has been shut down and removed. The question that I've been grappling with is where have all the hospitals gone that serve our communities in the Southside and the Northside, our Black and Latino communities? We call for the Ascension system to do what is just and to do what is right.”
Moreover, these different testimonies provided a pattern regarding Ascension’s greedy playbook. Despite being one of the most profitable Catholic “non-profit” healthcare entities in the country, Ascension has been sneakily shutting down hospitals by starting with silent closures of units, most often the L&D unit to start, over a period of time that culminates with an ultimate closure of the hospital. When they closed the L&D unit at St. Francis in December, it appeared that this was the course of action being laid out for yet another hospital.
“Ascension had plenty of opportunities for communication and whiffed on them all. They didn't let me know about it until last minute and I'm the Alderman of the district. They didn't let the staff know about it, and they certainly didn't let the community know about it,” said Scott Spiker, Alderman of the district which the hospital resides in. “And they did it right before Christmas, which, if you're running an ops operation, well done; if you're trying to serve the community, terribly done.”
Ascension believed they would be able to carry out their plans unimpeded. However, they didn’t count on a fighting union with strong community support. Led by the workers represented by a resurgent WFNHP Local 5000 and invested community members, the Coalition to Save St. Francis Hospital has turned up the pressure on Ascension in Milwaukee. The united front represented by these forces has hosted a number of actions, ranging from press conferences to pickets outside Ascension Wisconsin CEO Bernie Sherry's Milwaukee residence, with the expressed purpose of reopening the L&D unit at St. Francis and addressing the many concerns around safe staffing and higher pay.
Media outlets have also been quick to shed light on Ascension’s deplorable actions, broadening the scope of the narrative beyond just the St. Francis location. Now, elected officials are also throwing their support behind the Coalition’s efforts, including U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, who released a damning statement shaming Ascension for their harmful practices.
All of the negative publicity being heaped upon Ascension Wisconsin as a direct result of the combined efforts of the workers and their community allies is yielding significant results. Ascension Wisconsin’s internal leadership has been purged since the fight over the future of St. Francis began in earnest in December. The company recently announced the sudden departure of Bernie Sherry as regional CEO and several other high-level corporate team members, including the Chief Operating Officer, the Chief Nursing Officer, the Market Chief Human Resources Executive, and the Director of Communications.
While these corporate departures represent a resounding victory for the Coalition, the fight continues to reopen the L&D unit and to protect against further reduction in services at St. Francis Hospital. What's been made clear so far to the hospital workers and their allies is that when they fight, they win. The next step in this struggle is getting the anti-closure resolution passes by Milwaukee's Common Council. The issue will be put to a vote at their upcoming meeting on April 18. The Coalition will be mobilizing once again to ensure that the City takes a stand against this attack on workers and residents.