GREEN BAY – When health care providers announce changes, it can raise questions and concerns among patients, employees and the families of both.
Bellin Health and Gundersen Health System’s Wednesday announcement they are close to merging is no exception. La Crosse-based Gundersen and Green Bay-based Bellin expect to finalize terms by July before regulators review the combination.
The two organizations want to form a single entity with 14,000 employees who would annually handle more than 2.5 million patient visits to more than 100 clinics and 11 hospitals. Together, the Gundersen and Bellin service areas include western and northeast Wisconsin, Upper Michigan, southeast Minnesota and northeast Iowa.
In the meantime, Bellin CEO Chris Woleske and Gundersen CEO Scott Rathgaber have sought to address common patient and staff concerns as negotiations continue into the summer.
Here are their answers to five frequent questions about why Bellin and Gundersen are combining and how it will impact your care.
Why is this happening?
This was not a merger of necessity, Woleske and Rathgaber said, but of opportunity: They feel they can do more together than they can apart.
The merger will provide an opportunity to improve existing care while reaching more marginalized, underserved and rural patients.
“Our hope is by coming together, we actually can reach more patients,” Woleske said.
The combination would enable Bellin and Gundersen to scale up, offer patients more access to specialty services, control costs on business operations and share the cost of investing in medical technology and telehealth equipment, according to both organizations.
Woleske said working together will help the health care systems avoid supply chain disruptions, address the need for more skilled health care workers and continue to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Can I still see my doctors at my nearby clinic?
The merger focuses a lot on “what won’t change,” Woleske said, and that includes current operations.
Rathgaber said both organizations intend to continue to “care for our communities and continue to be there” and that neither wanted the merger to degrade the quality of care currently delivered.
“We want them to continue to get their care as they always had, in the same place they always have while enhancing that experience for folks,” Rathgaber said. “We believe we’re taking great care of our patients now. We don’t want to disrupt that.”
Will there be a name change?
Woleske and Rathgaber said Gundersen and Bellin are two “very strong brands” they want to respect and honor right now. They will remain in place for the time being.
But they also intend to have conversations with stakeholders and staff in the communities they serve about whether it makes sense to adopt a single name or keep the two, well-established brands.
So what will change for patients?
Bellin and Gundersen expect patients to see more access to more services as a result of the merger. They said sharing operational costs and other expenses will enable them to jointly serve more people.
For example, one benefit of the merger is that Bellin and Gundersen will share the cost of adding expensive medical equipment and technology, the organizations say. In doing so, they expect to expand telehealth services rural and marginalized populations, increasing access, Woleske said.
“We want to leverage technology and our access points to be more available to patients wherever they are,” Woleske said. “The most marginalized and vulnerable populations out there are not getting care today. So, how can we help?”
Rathgaber also noted a benefit patients will see in the long term comes from the two providers’ educational resources. Bellin operates Bellin College in the Green Bay area while Gundersen has a widely-recognized residency program. Those resources, together, could help the combined organization overcome ongoing shortages of skilled health care workers.
Will there be layoffs?
The organizations plan to minimize chances for layoffs and instead suggested the merger could result in more jobs, not fewer.
Woleske said the shared goal to serve more patients has Bellin and Gundersen anticipating a need for more staff.
“We look forward to training more workforce and building our workforce from those assets we have in our organizations,” Woleske said.
Rathgaber said he didn’t expect any job losses if Gundersen and Bellin merge.
“We really don’t see this is a decrease in workforce in any way, shape or form, as we are not consolidating services within one geography,” Rathgaber said. “It’s one of the benefits to having separate geography is that we continue to provide those locals jobs that are important to keep all of our communities vital and feed their economies, and as we get better, learn and grow … we’ll actually have more of those jobs not less.”
Green Bay Press-Gazette reporter Ariel Perez contributed to this report.