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Evers signs bill to help Chippewa Valley hospitals, uses line-item veto

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by Erik Gunn, Wisconsin Examiner
February 28, 2024

Gov. Tony Evers signed legislation Wednesday to spend up to $15 million assisting health care providers in the Chippewa Valley, while vetoing language that specified the money was to go only to capital spending for emergency rooms.

The legislation was introduced in response to the closures underway of hospitals in Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls and passed the Legislature last week.

The Hospital Sisters Health System (HSHS), based in Springfield, Ill., announced in late January that it would close HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire and HSHS St. Joseph Hospital in Chippewa Falls, with the closing process expected to end before May.

Along with the hospitals, 19 clinics operated in partnership with Prevea Health, based in Green Bay, are also closing. As many as 1,400 employees will be let go, according to state notices filed with the Department of Workforce Development (DWD). The region includes 26,300 Medicaid members, according to the state health department.

Sen. Jesse James (R-Altoona) and other Republican colleagues in the region introduced two bills earlier this month to help address the impact of the closures. One bill, SB-1015, transferred $15 million in unspent money from the 2021-23 state budget to the general fund. 

The other bill, SB-1014, authorized the Department of Health Services (DHS) to spend the funds on grants for capital improvements for emergency departments in Eau Claire and Chippewa counties in a process that requires approval by the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee.

Evers vetoed SB-1014 Wednesday and signed SB-1015 with partial vetoes that allow the money to be used for other health care needs in the region besides emergency departments.

In a statement Wednesday, James welcomed the funding while balking at Evers’ changes.

“In 2023, [the two hospitals] reported nearly 22,000 patients between their two area ER [emergency room] departments,” James said. “Following the closure of their locations, places like Chippewa Falls and the surrounding area would be left without an emergency room. Ambulances will have to travel at least 13 additional miles during times of crisis, although it will likely be much further.”

While the statement “celebrated the securing of $15 million for Chippewa Valley hospitals,” James added: “I am concerned the Governor’s veto excessively expands the scope and uses of the funds. We need to ensure the money remains in the area and goes towards the needs and services most impacted by the HSHS closures.”

Before the bills were passed, however, Democratic lawmakers representing the region as well as some local officials had said that SB-1014 was drawn too narrowly with its focus on emergency room brick-and-mortar investments.

“A few weeks ago, it looked to us as if emergency rooms might have been the most urgent need,” Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) said on the Assembly floor Thursday, Feb. 22. “However, as we move forward, every group I’ve talked to has been asking for more flexibility.”

Emerson praised the outcome in a statement Wednesday. “I’m excited that the Governor was able to use his veto power to get the best possible outcome for the Chippewa Valley,” she said.

“I really feel like it’s a win for the Chippewa Valley,” Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Brunswick) told the Wisconsin Examiner Wednesday. Evers’ actions to veto restrictions on how the money is used “broadens the scope so that the determination for where it’s needed will be made by the professionals who are going to request that money.”

Evers’ vetoes effectively implemented amendments to SB-1014 that Emerson in the Assembly and Smith in the Senate had offered to provide the flexibility Emerson referred to.

The amendments had been rejected by GOP majorities in both houses. SB-1014 passed with one Democratic vote in the Assembly and none in the Senate.

In his veto message for the bill Wednesday, Evers wrote, “I object to unnecessarily restricting crisis funding intended to address urgent healthcare needs in Western Wisconsin.” 

The closures will disrupt care “for patients with ongoing needs, pregnant women, and those with mental health, behavioral health, and substance use disorders, among others,” Evers wrote. “The state’s response to this crisis must consider and be responsive to meeting the entire continuum of healthcare services that will be impacted in communities across the region, not just hospital emergency departments.”

SB-1015 related to $15 million that has been held in the state building trust fund since it was budgeted in 2021-23 to support HSHS in a planned expansion of its behavioral health services in the Chippewa Valley. HSHS didn’t follow through with that plan and never requested the money before making the decision to shut down its operations in the region.

As written, the bill transferred the money to the state’s general fund. The bill stated the funds were for “grants to support hospital emergency department services.” Using his partial veto power, which applies only to direct budgetary bills, Evers vetoed that specific language.

DHS will be able to submit a plan “for funding any hospital services meeting the area’s pressing healthcare access needs,” Evers wrote in the veto message accompanying his approval of the bill with his changes.

Those needs, he added, include “urgent care services, OB-GYN services, in-patient psychiatric services, and mental health and substance abuse services in the Chippewa Valley.”

The DHS plan will be subject to the approval of the Joint Finance Committee. The department submitted its plan Wednesday to the committee’s cochairs, Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) and Rep. Mark Born (R-Beaver Dam), listing a series of criteria for prospective grant recipients in the region.

At the Wisconsin Hospital Association, President and CEO Eric Borgerding praised the lawmakers who wrote and passed the bill as well as Evers for acting quickly “to repurpose and make available $15 million in emergency funding to support the safety net hospitals and the services they provide in and around Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls.”

Borgerding said the hospital lobbying group would work with both the finance committee and DHS as they implement the proposed grants.

Republicans who had backed the original bill expressed disappointment that Evers’ vetoes had broadened the purposes for the money.

In a joint statement Rep. Rob Summerfield (R-Bloomer) and seven other Western Wisconsin Assembly Republicans claimed that it created “a slush fund” and “only further delays critical funds for our area to help heal from the wounds of the HSHS hospital closures.”

The statement suggested the prospect of further wrangling over how the money will be directed.

“Despite his actions today we will continue to work with the Joint Finance Committee along with the Department of Health Services to ensure that this money will be used for its original intent which is to provide emergency services for Chippewa Valley services,” the statement said.

This report has been updated with reactions from lawmakers and others.

This story is republished from the Wisconsin Examiner under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.