How The City Lost the Medical Center
New mental health center on near West Side of city a change from decades of hospitals moving to Wauwatosa.
The ceremony Tuesday celebrating the development of a new mental health center on 12th and Cherry featured speeches noting how this would improve health care in town, as Urban Milwaukee reported. Pete Carlson, president of Advocate Aurora Behavioral Health called it “the most important thing we have done with mental health in the region in 30 years.”
There was also a comment by Mayor Tom Barrett declaring the new facility would be at the “right site.” The current facility at 9455 W. Watertown Plank Rd. in suburban Wauwatosa had been located there for decades, even though 70% of its patients came from 10 ZIP codes adjacent to the new facility now being built on the city’s West Side.
Partly because the county had a long tradition of locating mental health facilities there. But the answer also goes back to decisions made by business leaders of the Greater Milwaukee Committee (GMC) which had a devastating impact on the city’s near West Side.
In the 1960s, that area of the city was the main location for hospitals. There were nine different medical facilities located within a mile of the medical college which was then run by Marquette University. Those included Deaconess, Lutheran, St. Anthony, Mount Sinai and Children’s hospitals. They could have been used to create a Harvard-style medical center, in which a medical school links up with nearby community hospitals. It would also have located the medical center nearest to city’s low-income neighborhoods, where most of the patients it would treat were living.
“That would have been a cheap way to have a medical center,” said Ralph Andreano, an administrator at the Wisconsin Division of Health at the time. “Instead of putting your money into bricks and mortar, you could put it into training and educational infrastructure.”
Andreano was quoted in a 1987 feature story about the building of the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center in Wauwatosa, co-written by me and the late John Pawasarat and published by the Milwaukee Journal’s Sunday magazine. The story traced decisions made by key Milwaukee leaders of the time, including retired Northwestern Mutual executive and GMC leader Edmund Fitzgerald, Milwaukee County Executive John Doyne and Marquette University President John Raynor, which ended up moving the city’s medical infrastructure out to the county grounds in Wauwatosa.
At the time the county’s hospital for the poor was in danger of becoming a white elephant, as the advent of Medicare and Medicaid allowed indigent patients to get care at any hospital rather than traveling as far as 10 miles to the Tosa hospital. To keep the hospital going Doyne agreed to provide a subsidy to the new medical college, which would then refer patients to County Hospital. But through the 1970s the subsidy grew and grew for the county and became an increasing concern.
The problem was compounded after the new Froedtert Hospital opened next door to County Hospital in 1980. Money had been left for a hospital in the will of industrialist Kurtis Froedtert, who died in 1951, and the GMC had supported building it since 1967, but after decades of delays its proposed creation in the mid-1970s became controversial.
A report done by Northwestern Mutual executive Donald Mundt warned that the new hospital would add to Milwaukee’s burgeoning oversupply of beds, duplicate specialty care and cost the community an estimated $32 million per year. He argued the new hospital was unneeded and County Hospital should be closed.
MCW saw Froedtert as a way to increase its income through charges on patient medical bills, Mundt argued. But his warnings were rejected by key GMC leaders who sat on the board of the medical college or backed the Froedtert project.
Through all these decisions, the impact on the city of transferring almost its entire medical infrastructure out to Wauwatosa didn’t seem to concern civic heavyweights. It was one of a number of decisions pushed by them that benefitted the suburbs over the city The impact was devastating, said then-state Sen. John Norquist, who represented the area. “This is what happens when you ‘get things done,’” he offered in 1987, in a slap at the GMC’s style. “Instead of closing County Hospital when Medicaid came in, they made everything move out to it. So the biggest losers were the poor. They lost jobs, they lost access to medical care. And the impact on the West Side was to have empty lots and less economic development.”
A half century since Milwaukee began pushing its medical infrastructure out to the suburbs, the opening of the new mental health center represents a recognition that medical facilities should be located as close as possible to their patients. It is also a reversal of history that this time at least places the city at the center of planning for the future. It’s a development that is truly worth celebrating.
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