Gundersen Health System and Marshfield Clinic Health System may soon merge into one larger health system, the two organizations said Tuesday in a joint announcement.
The potential merger would allow both organizations to better serve patients and enhance the level of care across Wisconsin, northeast Iowa and southeastern Minnesota, according to the announcement.
“The world is changing, and the same is true in health care. We must adapt and be innovative in order to continue to deliver quality care to the communities that we serve,” said Dr. Scott Rathgaber, chief executive officer of Gundersen Health System.
As the two health systems look to the future, leaders say joining the like-minded organizations together could put them in a better position to provide that care.
“Over the last few years, we have worked relentlessly to position ourselves for the future and create a better framework for serving our patients and communities,” said Dr. Susan Turney, CEO of Marshfield Clinic Health System. “While at the same time, the disruption in the industry and competitive nature of health care has made it vital we construct a dynamic and strong integrated health system. This merger would give us an opportunity to combine the unique strengths of our systems to become the preeminent rural health care organization in the country.”
The two organizations will spend months working out the details; however, the systems say they already have a similar mission, vision and values, including lowering cost of care, providing exceptional patient experience and providing high-quality care with the best outcomes.
“During a discussion on a possible merger, each of these remain top priorities for each organization, along with improving access to quality health care,” Rathgaber said.
There will be no immediate changes for patients, but a merger would eventually help keep costs down, hospital officials said.
“We can work on our services and how to better deliver those across the whole continuum of care. Ultimately, together and larger, we really hope to bring the cost of care down by working with those efficiencies and bringing that directly to our patients,” Rathgaber said.
Marshfield Clinic began in 1916 and has grown into a health system that includes eight hospitals in Wisconsin, as well as clinics throughout the state. It has more than 11,000 employees, including 1,200 providers.
Gundersen, which is headquartered in La Crosse, has more than 8,000 employees and serves 21 counties in three states. Gundersen Health System is the largest employer in La Crosse County.
The merger talks aren’t a lifeline for one organization or the other, Rathgaber said.
“We’re looking at this as a merger of equals. If you look at our systems, we are very equal, so we want to use the strengths and levers of each system to make the new entity even better,” Rathgaber said.
If they were to merge, Gundersen Health System and Marshfield Clinic Health System would have more than 19,000 employees, 13 hospitals and more than 100 clinics, which includes medical clinics, eye centers, dental centers, urgent-care locations and pharmacies.
“It will make us one of the larger rural health care systems in the country,” Rathgaber said.
He didn’t anticipate layoffs any time soon due to the possible merger.
“What’s really nice is that the two systems are contiguous by geography, but we don’t overlap very much. It’d be a different conversation if we were overlapping and in the same markets,” Rathgaber said.
Both systems have their own patients to take care of, and they will all continue to need care.
“We’ll certainly be looking at where we can have efficiencies, but we’re looking at this and we need our dedicated staff to care for our patients and continue to do that throughout the discussion and beyond if the discussions come to fruition,” he said.
Rathgaber said he wasn’t sure how long the discussions would last, adding that they’re committed to doing it right, not necessarily fast.
They have not yet gotten to the point of discussing what the possible new entity would be called, but Rathgaber said it would likely honor the long reputations and legacies of both Gundersen and Marshfield Clinic.
Longtime educator and current Gov. Tony Evers was recognized for his contributions to higher education Tuesday at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Evers received the UW-L Student Association’s Higher Education Advocate Award, presented each year to someone who has shown exemplary support for students and colleges in Wisconsin.
Ben O’Connell, Student Association president, said Evers was deserving not just because of his political advocacy or legislative goals, but because he routinely takes time to talk with students.
“It’s about his willingness to listen to students and interact with them to see what we need and what we want in higher education,” O’Connell said at Tuesday’s award ceremony. He used an example from early December, when the newly elected Evers had lunch with UW-L students.
“To be honest, students get ignored much of the time by higher elected officials when there’s no political affiliation or press involved. In this case, Gov. Evers asked to eat lunch at a table with just students,” O’Connell said. “It was amazing to be able to share our perspectives and what we go through as students with somebody who is an actual governor.”
UW-L Chancellor Joe Gow said Evers’ interest in students “makes a strong impression and says something about his values.”
Evers, who served as the state superintendent from 2009 to early 2019, said the UW System is damaged after years of cuts and neglect by the previous administration. One of his priorities as governor, he said, is restoring the state’s investment in higher education.
In his state budget proposal, Evers recommended freezing in-state tuition and awarding UW schools an extra $50 million to make up for the lost revenue.
He also backed $1.1 billion in capital projects across the UW System, including $161 million of work at UW-L.
Noting Republican opposition to much of his proposed education budget, Evers dug in his heels on Tuesday and encouraged students and faculty to advocate for themselves.
“We’re not going to negotiate against our students, and we’re not going to negotiate against ourselves,” he said. “It’s our job to make sure students get every dollar they deserve, and not a penny less.”
O’Connell, a graduating senior, underscored the need for capital investments at UW-L and across the UW System, saying that students “shouldn’t have to go to class in a building that was made in the 1960s, that’s crumbling and falling apart.”
He also thanked Evers for proposing a $50,000 study into student loan debt relief — an item that Republicans have struck from their own budget proposal.
“Even though the Legislature has removed the proposal, we appreciate that Gov. Evers has set a new expectation that we don’t have to be in debt for the rest of our lives,” O’Connell said.
Evers, a native of Plymouth, took an unorthodox path to the governor’s office.
He spent the better part of four decades climbing Wisconsin’s public education ladder, spending time as a teacher and principal in Tomah, as a superintendent in Oakfield and Verona, and as an administrator with the Cooperative Education Service Agency in Oshkosh.
After unsuccessful bids in 1993 and 2001, Evers was elected state superintendent in 2009.
“I think the reason I’m getting this award is everybody in the state of Wisconsin believes that what’s best for our students is going to be what’s best for our state,” Evers said. “It’s always been a top priority for us. It’s what’s made us strong in the past, and we’ll make sure it continues to be a strength.”
There were kayak trips around the Apostle Islands, dining, golf and waterpark visits in Wisconsin Dells, and concerts and basketball games at the new $524 million Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.
In Dane County, visitors strolled around the state Capitol, biked the hills around Mount Horeb and came from around the world for events at Monona Terrace, UW-Madison, Alliant Energy Center and Epic Systems Corp. in Verona.
And all of it helped Wisconsin to its ninth straight year of positive gains in tourism, one of the pillars of the state’s economy.
Direct tourism spending in 2018 increased 4.86% to $13.3 billion with an overall economic impact of $21.5 billion, an increase of 4.68%, according to a report released Monday by the state Department of Tourism. The state’s tourism industry accounted for 199,073 jobs, an increase of 1.67%, that paid out $5.5 billion in wages, an increase of 2.43%, while tourism also contributed $1.5 billion in state and local taxes, an increase of 2.6 percent over 2017.
But for data-driven Sara Meaney, the state’s Tourism Secretary designee, one of the growth categories she is trumpeting this week as she tours the state to tout the tourism numbers is the 4.9% increase in spending per visitor to $118. The number of visitors in 2018 grew by 2 million people over 2017 to 112.1 million.
“We’re getting more dollars out of each visitor,” said Meaney, who spent the weekend in northern Wisconsin to help open the fishing season. “It’s a fantastic indication that people are finding more ways to spend time and dollars in Wisconsin.”
Milwaukee County, with $2.1 billion in direct spending that marked a 5.8% increase over 2017, continued to lead the state in tourism spending while Dane County tourism was second as spending increased 5.2% to $1.3 billion. Sauk County, home to many of the attractions in the Wisconsin Dells area, saw spending increase 4.3% to $1.1 billion. Waukesha County ranked fourth in spending at $823.9 million, an increase of 6.2%; Brown County, home to the Green Bay Packers, had spending increase 3.9% to $696 million; and in Walworth County, a big draw for Chicago-area visitors, spending rose 4.6% to $569 million.
Data for the annual report were compiled by Tourism Economics and Longwoods International, tourism research firms that study the market and conduct surveys in all of the state’s 72 counties to determine spending and visitor habits. The results were released Monday at the start of National Travel & Tourism Week.
In Dane County, tourism spending accounted for nearly 10% of visitor spending for the entire state and supported 22,000 jobs.
“The increase in tourism spending reflects Madison’s growing reputation as a dynamic place to visit, as well as the work we do at Destination Madison to bring meetings and events to Dane County, and create tourism-driving projects like Bucky on Parade,” Deb Archer, president and CEO of Destination Madison said in a statement. “With longstanding anchors like World Dairy Expo and Epic Users Group meetings, and new events like the Reebok CrossFit Games, Madison appeals to a wide spectrum of visitors from around the world.”
The increase for 2018 surpassed Dane County’s average annual tourism growth since 2013 with tourism allowing state and local governments to collect a total of $163 million in tax revenue there. The increase comes as more hotels rise in the Madison area, the tech industry continues to grow and as the county continues to be a destination for recreational activities and events such as Wisconsin Badgers sports, WIAA state tournaments, Ironman, biking, camping, boating and watching Madison Forward FC, a professional soccer team that just kicked off its inaugural season at Breese Stevens Field.
“Our beautiful lakes, parks, bike paths and other attractions are certainly a draw for visitors from around the world, but so are our amazing athletic, artistic and food-related events, our festivals and our hospitality,” said Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, who was elected last month.
In Wisconsin Dells, which does its own spending survey that touches three counties, direct visitor spending in 2018 was $1.21 billion, up 3.7% over the previous year. Spending was up nearly 9% in January, February and December of 2018 while overall the industry supported 16,378 jobs.
“We’re so grateful to see another year of growth and are especially thrilled to see winter (spending) continuing to increase,” said Romy Snyder, executive director of the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau. “I think that’s a true testament to our year-round appeal.”
Statewide, lodging and food and beverage purchases accounted for about $7 billion or about 53% of tourism spending. Shopping contributed $2.6 billion, and $1.8 billion was spent on transportation. Recreational spending on activities like boating, fishing, biking and camping experienced the largest growth by sector with an increase of 8% to $1.9 billion.
But while the overall tourism picture for the state was positive, seven counties, including Jackson, Juneau and Crawford, saw tourism decrease, while another three counties experienced less than 1% growth. In addition, the industry is continually challenged to find enough employees and is facing constant competition from Minnesota and Michigan. Wisconsin’s growth rate for the number of visitors increased 1.9%, which matched the national average. Meaney, who, along with other appointees of Gov. Tony Evers is waiting to be confirmed by state legislators, believes more visitors can be had.
“It’s an indication that we’re keeping up with the average but it’s also still indicating that we have more work to do,” Meaney said. “And when you pair that with the fact that our competitive set continues to heat up from the east and west of us, I think it continues to indicate that we have a challenge ahead of us and that we can’t rest on our laurels.”