Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

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.

By - Sep 2nd, 2021 10:36 am
Children's Hospital of Wisconsin and Froedtert. File photo by Aalvarez89 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and Froedtert. File photo by Aalvarez89 / (CC BY-SA)

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.  

So why was the facility so far away from its patients?

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. 

Raynor wanted to dump the Marquette Medical College, which was losing money, and quietly cut a deal to have the Greater Milwaukee Committee take it over, which led to the creation in 1967 of what became the Medical College of Wisconsin. Rather than locate it in the city, near the huge infrastructure of hospitals, the GMC decided to locate it next to the old County Hospital 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. 

The opening of Froedtert led directly to the demise of County Hospital, which lost most of its referrals from MCW. It also led other medical providers to move out to the county grounds, to be close to the medical college and what was now called the regional medical center. That included Children’s Hospital, Curative Care Network, and the Blood Center of Wisconsin. So it seemed the natural location in the 1980s to build a new county mental health facility rather than considering a city location. Meanwhile, west side hospitals like Deaconess, Lutheran and St. Anthony’s lost patients and went of business.   

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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7 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: How The City Lost the Medical Center”

  1. B says:

    Thank you for this story Bruce. As a recent transplant it seemed odd to me that the hospitals would be so far out of the city. You would think city leaders would want it in the center of town so all of the spillover effects would stay in the city tax base (workers living close by, development of ancillary clinics etc). It seems Eastern Waukesha county did well out of this deal. It is a long trip on the gold line for workers in the central city to get out to the medical campuses – hopefully the coming BRT will shorten that.

  2. George Wagner says:

    Two other hospitals that would soon meet their demise in the near downtown area were Doctors (renamed Family) Hospital and Good Samaritan. Even the many doctors’ offices in the Plankinton Building in the 50s and 60s would soon give way to more remote physician buildings.

  3. Maryg says:

    Interesting to look back on how decisions were made at the time and the resulting fallout for many city residents. For years I worked with populations whom required use of the facilities and services of ‘County’. The location placed an burden on citizens and their families. Bringing services to the people is a welcome change.

  4. rrta says:

    Doyne was originally planned for the near west side medical district. The physicians logically wanted it close to County Emergency (24th & Wisconsin), but it was decided that the poor should have to make the long journey out to the county grounds, to make sure they really needed it.

  5. 45 years in the City says:

    Until BRT there was no consensus on what (if anything) to do for transit access to the Medical Center. Not only did this present accessibility issues for those unable or unwilling to drive, but it forced the institutions to spend enormous sums on parking structures. State, county, and municipal governments have also had to spend on adjacent roads to handle the traffic.

  6. Bill Sell says:

    Some years ago, I engaged a primary doctor who had served our family; office in Greendale. Since I’ve been relatively healthy, this was a uncomplicated annual trip to the downtown Greendale bus stop. It came to pass that the doctor and his partner decided to move the office to Greendale’s southern rim (about a mile south) of the current bus stop. Then they affiliated with Froedtert, Meanwhile my choice in hospitals was what was to be called Ascension, formerly St. Francis.

    One stay at Froedtert convinced me of the quality of their care, But specialty doctors were also gravitating west. As a bus rider I found I could access a specialist recommended by my Primary from a bus stop in New Berlin about one mile from her office. The McKinley site was my go-to for the annual tests, but reasonable people would view that relatively small structure (with a basketball court for the Bucks) as marketing, and nothing more than that for me. St. Luke’s presence near home indicated the emergency stop I needed one one particular day. Every time I think of or need to use medical services, I can feel the westward drift of services away from my home, and the central city.

  7. Polaris says:

    Thanks for sharing his history. As a young boy, I remember seeing hospitals on the near west side and hearing their names. And also visiting a doctor in the Plankinton Arcade. What a shame that the “city fathers” moved in the direction they did.

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