Starkman: Congressman Levin Vows to Stop Beaumont Merger with Chicago's Advocate Aurora

September 30, 2020, 9:03 PM

The writer, a Los Angeles freelancer, is a former Detroit News business reporter who blogs aStarkman Approved.

By Eric Starkman

Rep. Andy Levin: "There is tremendous concern."

Democratic Congressman Andy Levin, whose district includes Beaumont Health’s flagship Royal Oak campus, insists his public opposition to the hospital network's merger with Chicago-based Advocate Aurora isn’t just meaningless rhetoric.

“I simply do not accept this merger as it is currently proposed and unless I hear some facts to change my mind, I expect to make it stop happening,” Levin said in an interview with Deadline Detroit.

Levin, along with state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, and state Rep. Jim Ellison, D-Royal Oak, this week became the first publicly elected officials to oppose Beaumont’s merger, which will make it a regional outpost of a multi-state hospital network based in Illinois. Despite his tough statement, Levin took issue when I characterized it as meaning the merger is far from a done deal.

“Those are your words, not mine,” Levin said. He didn’t say what, if anything, he could do to stop the deal, but insisted his statement wasn’t the last word residents in his district would be hearing from him about the merger.

“(The statement) is not a one-shot deal,” Levin said. “I intend to follow (the merger) closely and get the best outcome for my constituents.” The Berkley native said he was “very devoted” to Beaumont, noting that when he was growing up, he played in the fields on which Beaumont’s sprawling campus was built.

Opposition Allies

Levin said he had a “good conversation” with Beaumont Health CEO John Fox Tuesday morning, who he said appreciated being told in advance about the statement opposing the merger. Levin also insisted that he, McMorrow, and Ellison are not alone in their opposition to Beaumont’s merger.

Beaumont CEO John Fox (Hospital photo)

“I know there is tremendous concern in both Lansing and Washington about the merger,” Levin said.

Levin, whose rookie two-year term began in January 2019, is respectively the son and nephew of famed Michigan lawmakers Sander and Carl Levin. He is vice chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor. Levin was previously deputy director of Michigan’s Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth. He holds a Harvard law degree and a major source of his campaign support comes from unions.

Levin seemed taken aback when asked about Fox spending nearly $2 million to defeat a union certification drive among Beaumont Royal Oak nurses and that the Michigan Nurses Association had withdrawn from any further organization attempts because it said opposition from Beaumont’s management was too formidable. Levin said he wasn’t aware of Fox’s union-busting efforts.

“The pandemic has shown it’s more important than ever for employees to have a say,” about workplace conditions, Levin said.

Given his background, Levin strikes me as one of the good people in politics. To his credit, his office has researched the adverse impacts hospital mergers have on patients, including higher prices and poorer patient outcomes. He understands that Beaumont’s merger will result in Michigan’s biggest hospital surrendering control to an out-of-state company. While Levin perhaps is correct that there is significant political opposition to the merger, he, McMorrow, and Ellison are the only elected officials so far with the courage to speak out.

Fox announced the merger in June, and in the interim Beaumont has imploded to the point of possibly no return. More than a dozen prominent surgeons and specialists have resigned, about half of the health network’s nationally ranked anesthesiologists have quit, and dozens of nurses have bolted.

The heads of Beaumont’s Royal Oak cardiology department recently sent a letter to Beaumont’s board chair warning they had no confidence in NorthStar Anesthesia, the outsourcing company that Beaumont has hired to manage anesthesiology services beginning next January.

Signs of slippage

I’m told that more than 300 Beaumont doctors have applied for privileges at other Detroit-area hospitals. In-the-know patients are increasingly demanding that surgeries be performed outside of Beaumont facilities. Operations at Beaumont Royal Oak and Troy have frequently been delayed or cancelled because of a shortage of sterilized instruments. A pervasive rumor throughout the hospitals is that Beaumont has recruited baristas from Starbucks to help with the effort.

Beaumont spokesman Mark Geary typically ignores my requests for comment as he did for this column. He’s previously said that Beaumont prefers to talk to “unbiased” reporters working at mainstream publications. It's a convenient excuse for dodging tough questions.

Beaumont’s latest high-profile resignation is Sunitha Govindaswamy, who heads Beaumont’s transplant anesthesiology. Govindaswamy is the last remaining member of Beaumont’s liver transplant anesthesiology team. Beaumont Royal Oak, where the majority of the hospital network's surgeries are performed, has also lost all six of its critical care anesthesiologists, seven of its eight cardiac anesthesiologists, and half its pediatrics anesthesiology team. Most of the remaining fellowship trained anesthesiologists are expected to be gone by Jan. 1. 

Beaumont’s certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs), without whom the hospital can’t maintain its volume of surgeries, are known to be displeased with the terms NorthStar has offered them to join the company and continue working at Beaumont. They are holding out for a better deal; many are known to be actively looking for employment elsewhere.

In another sign of Beaumont Health’s disregard for Southeast Michigan residents, the company last week closed an OB/GYN office in Canton. Doctors were not given notice and patients, including pregnant women close to delivery, were dispersed to other Beaumont doctors. Critical discussions of the closing on Facebook have mysteriously disappeared.

Exit planning?

Attorneh General Dana Nessel (state photo)

Indications are that Fox and his management team count on Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel to rubber-stamp the Advocate Aurora merger before year-end, despite her insistence that she will hold hearings and carefully scrutinize the transaction. Indeed, they already appear to have one foot out the door.

Beaumont’s CFO and his top deputy recently sold their Detroit area homes; they never gave up their Nashville-area residences. Beaumont’s head of HR, who relocated from Ohio, also recently sold his home. Mark Bohen, Beaumont’s former chief marketing officer, quit and relocated to a Boston hospital. Fox, who owns homes in Atlanta and North Carolina, put his Bloomfield Hills estate up for sale last year.

Beaumont’s biggest donors, who recently sent a letter to Beaumont’s board expressing concern about the hospital’s implosion, have met with Beaumont's directors multiple times, but no material action has resulted. Despite a survey revealing that a majority of Beaumont doctors have no faith in Fox or his management team, he and his deputies remain at the helm, thereby assuring Beaumont’s continued erosion.

It’s admirable that Congressman Levin is possibly deeply committed to staving off Beaumont’s merger with Advocate Aurora. But his expressed opposition to the merger months after it was announced is too little, too late. By year-end, Beaumont will be just a giant community hospital of no particular distinction. The argument that Advocate Aurora isn’t a worthy merger partner will no longer hold. Sadly, merging with Advocate Aurora might be the only thing that can save the ailing hospital network 

This might have been the plan all along -- a modern-day meaning to the saying, “Crazy like a Fox.”

Reach Eric Starkman at Beaumont employees and vendors are encouraged to reach out, with confidentiality assured. 

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