Anticipation of the new millennium at Allina Health System has nothing to do with having a good New Year's Eve party to attend or the Y2K bug.
Instead, Allina is gearing up for the start of Minnesota's legislative session in February.
High on Allina's agenda is getting a bill passed to change the process for hospitals to seek exemptions to the state's moratorium on adding new hospital beds.
Allina, headquartered in the Minneapolis suburb of Minnetonka, Minn., needs an exemption because it wants to build a hospital in St. Cloud, Minn., about 70 miles from the Twin cities.
St. Cloud is now a one-hospital town, where 616-bed St. Cloud Hospital is the flagship of CentraCare Health System.
St. Cloud is a desirable market for Allina because it sits in the middle of central Minnesota, home to about 500,000 people.
Under current law, Allina must ask the Legislature to grant it an exemption to build a St. Cloud hospital.
Since 1984, when the moratorium was put in place, there have been just 12 exemptions granted, says Todd Johnson, Allina's director of government relations.
What Allina wants to do is establish a process under which an administrative law judge or special master would be brought in to issue a report to the Legislature on any new hospital projects.
Without a third party to review new hospital proposals, "the data fights are ugly," Johnson says.
That's especially true for controversial proposals, such as Allina's, which CentraCare bitterly opposes.
"It's who do you believe?" Johnson says. "Our numbers or their numbers?"
And in this case, the numbers tell widely differing stories (July 12, p. 16).
Both Allina and CentraCare paid for consumer surveys that came to opposite conclusions about the need for a second hospital in St. Cloud.
Allina's survey found that 59% of the 609 people polled wanted the option of choosing between two local hospitals.
In stark contrast, a poll CentraCare commissioned showed almost 67% of 599 people didn't think the area needed another hospital.
Jim Davis, CentraCare's vice president of network development, doesn't like Allina's plan to try to change the process.
"Our position on that is that the current process works and has served Minnesota well," Davis says.
He says Allina is trying to do an end run around public opinion.
"That's the concern that we have," Davis says. "They're trying to find a way that isn't dependent on the public support."
Community groups sponsored a debate last month on Allina's proposal for a second hospital.
Judging from the 200 or so people who attended, "it appears to me . . . Allina doesn't have majority support," says Kip Sullivan, research director at Minnesota Citizens Organized Acting Together, a sponsor of the debate.
Sullivan says he is "a little concerned about changing the current system until we've had a chance to talk about whether it needs to be changed and if so how to make it more democratic. Citizens need to be more involved in whether to open or close a hospital."
Allina's proposal to allow a third party to advise the Legislature on the exemption process would make allowances for public comment, Johnson says.
Allina has a Senate sponsor for its bill to change the exemption process.
Johnson, however, declined to name the sponsor.
One thing is for sure, Allina isn't interested in repealing the moratorium, he Johnson says.
"It preserves the integrity of the inner-city hospital," because it keeps providers from abandoning the city and moving to the suburbs, he says. It also keeps providers from skimming off lucrative services into niche hospitals.
Johnson says changing the exemption process isn't an effort to get special legislation just to benefit Allina.
He points out that other providers also can make a pitch to build a hospital in St. Cloud.
Johnson says Gordon Sprenger, Allina's president and chief executive officer, believes it is important to have a strategic planning vehicle in place for the state of Minnesota for its healthcare needs into the next century.
Allina and CentraCare already go head-to-head in St. Cloud. Both are building ambulatory-care centers across the street from one another.
Bruce Rueben, president of the Minnesota Hospital and Healthcare Partnership, says the association has a task force looking at the moratorium.
The task force will be coming out with a position on the advisability of changing the process for seeking an exemption.
"There's no position at this point," Rueben says.