A union representing workers at a Minnesota hospital was unsuccessful in a recent attempt to throw an antitrust monkey wrench into the hospital's proposed sale to another facility.
But the effort illustrates the growing sophistication of the tactics used by unions to block hospital deals that may result in lost jobs for their members.
The hospitals are Fairview Health System and University of Minnesota Hospital and Clinics, both of Minneapolis. Fairview intends to acquire the university system next year, consolidate its operations with a Fairview hospital and dump the university workers' unions.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees represents nearly 1,000 university hospital workers. But, shortly after the deal was hammered out this past summer, Fairview stated it won't recognize AFSCME as the workers' collective-bargaining agent.
The union recently took its concerns to the Minnesota attorney general's office, urging the agency to investigate the proposed acquisition for possible antitrust violations. But a Nov. 22 letter to the union from Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III appears to indicate he won't interfere in the deal, parties involved said.
However, he did suggest that the hospitals voluntarily seek an antitrust exemption from the state.
"My view is that hospital mergers need the kind of broad searching review of issues like access, quality and cost that that statute provides," Humphrey wrote. "Moreover, to the best of my knowledge, gaining approval under that process is the only method . . . . (to) secure any absolute antitrust defense."
A 3-year-old Minnesota statute allows providers to merge despite antitrust problems if the state health commissioner approves. But it can entail ongoing reporting obligations.
Fairview and university executives said no thanks.
Health department officials told Gov. Arne Carlson in July that the merger advanced state goals, said Mark Rotenberg, university general counsel. The providers also have presented the antitrust issues to Humphrey's office and, based on those discussions, believe no action will be taken.
In addition, U.S. Justice Department officials have said they won't review the merger because it involves a state facility, Rotenberg said.
"If the attorney general had determined there was an antitrust problem, he would have said so in his letter," Rotenberg said. "We have taken reasonable and appropriate steps to consult with and seek the approval of state officials. The feeling is enough is enough. The needs of the university cannot be held hostage to a single-minded effort to stop the process."
A spokesman for the attorney general said the office won't make any public comment on the merger unless it files a court challenge.
Now, there's little hope the new Fairview-University entity will be subject to ongoing public oversight despite the fact it will account for 28% of the hospital admissions in the Twin Cities, said Peter Benner, AFSCME Council 6 director.