Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Health Care A Big Issue in Western Wisconsin

As hospitals close and health care access shrinks Republicans face voter worries.

By - Feb 12th, 2024 10:11 am
Hospital waiting area. (Public Domain)

Hospital waiting area. (Public Domain)

Health care has suddenly emerged as a major election-year issue in western and northern Wisconsin – regions largely represented in Madison and Washington by Republicans.

The most immediate threat to care comes from announcements that Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls hospitals operated by the Hospital Sisters Health System (HSHS) and Prevea Health’s 19 facilities across the Chippewa Valley will soon close. “Like many health systems, we have had to grapple with the lingering impacts of the pandemic, the effects of inflation, workforce challenges and other industry-wide trends,” officials of the Green Bay-based Prevea said.

Those closings follow the end of merger plans between Marshfield Clinic and Duluth-based Essentia Health. When the merger failed, Marshfield Clinic said it was laying off 3% of its employees.

Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls are in the Third Congressional District represented by first-term Republican Derrick Van Orden; Marshfield is in the Seventh Congressional District represented by Republican Tom Tiffany. Republicans hold most of the region’s legislative seats.

At a community forum sponsored by WEAU-TV that included representatives from Mayo and Marshfield care systems, Van Orden said the closings threaten “the entire spectrum from life to death.”

He listed services that would end: Two of four regional emergency rooms, over 100 hospital beds including 15 critical care beds, a 400-patient cancer center now treating 100 patients, a wound-care clinic with 175 patients, a birthing center, a dialysis treatment center with 50 patients, and regional EMS services.

“We were given a two-hour notice that this was taking place. We’re playing catch-up,” Van Orden said at the forum. He read a note from one woman whose cancer treatments “cannot be interrupted.”

Van Orden said elected officials from both parties – he, Tiffany, Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Democrats U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Gov. Tony Evers – are working on solutions. “There’s no Rs and Ds in this problem set,” Van Orden added. “Health care has become politicized, and it should not. We are ‘all hands on deck’ here.”

Besides ending about 1,400 jobs, the closings threaten “access to health care in the local and regional areas,” said Evers, who visited Eau Claire Feb. 5 with leaders of three state agencies to discuss state government’s response.

Although Van Orden said political leaders were notified of the closures only hours before they were announced, Wisconsin Hospital Association (WHA) leaders had been warning of worsening finances.

In a report summarizing charitable care provided in 2022, WHA President Eric Borgerding said, “Each day our hospitals provide care to over 1.5 million individuals enrolled in the state Medicaid program, despite receiving roughly 65-cents for $1 it costs to treat a patient. Consequently, they endure an annual loss of $1.6 billion.”

Last October, in another report, WHA officials warned that health systems faced “their most significant financial challenges in more than a decade.” Comparing those finances in 2022 to 2019 (to exclude extraordinary COVID-19 treatment costs in 2020 and ‘21), the report added, “53 Wisconsin hospitals had a negative operating margin, while 65 hospitals had a negative total margin – both of which are the highest number of hospitals in the past ten years.”

Officials said low Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates contributed to the closings. WHA reports say Eau Claire’s Sacred Heart Hospital got 50% of its patient income from Medicare, and 15% from Medicaid, in 2022. St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls got 44% of its 2022 patient income from Medicare and 21% from Medicaid.

Wisconsin has “underfunded” its Medicaid system for a long time, Democratic Rep. Jodi Emerson, of Eau Claire, said during the WEAU forum. Emerson noted that Republican legislators have blocked pleas by Evers to accept federal dollars that would expand Medicaid to about 70,000 more middle-income residents. “Medicaid expansion is a part of that solution. We have a lot of people who are underinsured.”

But Republican Sen. Jesse James, whose district includes the region, said leaders of his party won’t expand Medicaid in that way. “There is no coverage gap,” James said. “Wisconsin has [expanded coverage] uniquely different than other states.”

Van Orden said Medicaid – like Medicare – is also “broken… Throwing more money on a sinking ship is not the right answer.”

But the closings moved access to health care to the top of voters’ minds – ahead of the economy, immigration and international conflicts – nine months before November elections.

Steven Walters started covering the Capitol in 1988. Contact him at

If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real, independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits.

3 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Health Care A Big Issue in Western Wisconsin”

  1. ZeeManMke says:

    Van Orden needs to take up a comedy act. He will not be in Congress much longer.

    Politicized healthcare? Like the trump scam to repeal Obamacare and replace it with nothing?

    Like Van Orden receiving free healthcare paid for by people he thinks are on a “sinking ship?”

    For-profit health care does not work.

  2. Mingus says:

    The Republican elected members of the Wisconsin Senate and Assembly spend most of their time passing legislation aimed at promoting conservatives culture ware issues and continue to ignore health care and economic development in the regions they represent. When are these voters going to wake up to vote for representatives who support health care, school funding, and resources for community services and not continue to elect representatives who are focused on the culture wars.

  3. Colin says:

    STOP ALL HOSPITAL MERGERS. It’s been proven time and time again that quality & speed of care plummets, cost of care soars, locations close, CEOs jump with their golden parachutes… it’s sick.
    The public loses in all ways.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us