Bellin, Gundersen explore merger as health care industry consolidation continues in Wisconsin

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GREEN BAY – Gundersen Health System and Bellin Health are finalizing a merger that would create one of the largest health care providers in Wisconsin.

Discussions between Green Bay-based Bellin and La Crosse-based Gundersen evolved out of their joint involvement in AboutHealth, a network formed in 2014 by six of Wisconsin’s largest care providers.

Together, Bellin and Gundersen would employ more than 14,000 people. They will operate 11 hospitals and more than 100 clinics. The not-for-profit providers’ service area would span western and northeastern Wisconsin, Upper Michigan, southeast Minnesota and northeast Iowa.

Gundersen employs 9,000 people and Bellin 5,000.

Leaders of the organizations said they are “very optimistic” about the status of discussions right now and that they expect to finalize terms in the coming weeks, after which it will be subject to regulators’ review.

Bellin Hospital pictured on May 31, 2022, in Green Bay, Wis.

Bellin Hospital pictured on May 31, 2022, in Green Bay, Wis.

Dr. Scott Rathgaber, Gundersen CEO, said Gundersen and Bellin share a mission and strategic vision that made merging the right move. Both he and Bellin President and CEO Chris Woleske said the combination was not driven by a pressing need, but by an opportunity to share expertise and the cost of investing in new medical equipment and telehealth technology.

“By seeking partners of a like mind, we’re better off together than being independent,” Rathgaber said. “This is about our duty to continue to preserve our ability to serve our patients in our community.”

Woleske said patients should see little change as a result of the merger. The organizations don’t plan to change their names right now, and patients will continue to visit the same locations and physicians as before. She said the organizations plan to meet with patients, stakeholders, and communities in the future to determine whether to shift to a single name.

Bellin Health President and CEO Chris Woleske

Bellin Health President and CEO Chris Woleske

Woleske said the combined organization should be able to cut costs on back-office functions. The combination also aims to enable both providers to serve more patients than they do now while holding the line on the cost of care.

“There are patients who, for a variety of reasons, today aren’t accessing health care. We want to leverage our technology and access points to be more available to patients wherever they are. We know the most marginalized and vulnerable populations are not getting care today,” Woleskse said.

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The combined organization would maintain headquarters in both Green Bay and La Crosse and would split the CEO and board chair between regions, ensuring shared decisions and equal representation.

Rathgaber would become CEO of the merged system and John Dykema, Bellin’s current board chairman, would serve as the new system’s board chair. Woleske would become the system’s executive vice president and northern region president.

The two organizations have developed a mutual appreciation for each other over the years. Rathgaber called Bellin a “gem” of an organization.

“We came away wowed by what great folks they are,” Rathgaber said. “From our perspective, it’s been an amazing ride to get to know them better.”

Dr. Scott Rathgaber

Dr. Scott Rathgaber

Like every other health care provider, Bellin and Gundersen continue to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, the shortage of skilled health care workers and supply chain challenges.

The two leaders said one particular area where their services complement each other is in workforce development, a major issue facing all health care providers. Bellin operates the nursing and medical imaging school Bellin College, while Gundersen has a robust residency program.

“We want to locally take advantage of that as much as possible,” Woleske said.

Rathgaber added that Gundersen can learn from Bellin’s workplace culture.

“Bellin leads the state in workforce satisfaction,” he said. “We do pretty well in quality of care, but Bellin is really known for that. I can’t wait to see what can be done by putting those together.”

Doubling down on affordability

Bellin and Gundersen emphasized the merger would help them ensure more accessible, affordable and equitable care.

“It’s an issue and we want to work with payers and employers and find a way that we can come together to make health care more affordable for everyone,” Woleske said.

Rathgaber said both organizations are committed to investing in Population Health initiatives across their service areas. The approach focuses on people’s physical and mental health, financial well-being, home life and other factors. The initiatives will focus on equity, preventive health and behavioral health.

“If you keep the population healthy, they need to use expensive services less,” Rathgaber said. “The Population Health commitment, not just about caring for you when you’re sick, but investing in community to make people healthier — we’re committed to doing that. It’s a win for the system and it’s a win for our communities as people get healthier. I think we’ll do it better and broader together.”

An overhead of the Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center's Legacy building at 1900 South Ave., in La Crosse.

An overhead of the Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center’s Legacy building at 1900 South Ave., in La Crosse.

Wisconsin providers continue consolidation

The Bellin and Gundersen merger reflects a wave of consolidation in the nation’s health care industry, and is the second major consolidation announced this year involving Wisconsin health care providers.

Advocate Aurora Health, itself the result of a 2018 merger, in May announced plans to  merge with North Carolina-based Atrium Health. If completed, the combination would create the fifth largest health care provider in the United States.

Gundersen had previously explored merging with a different provider. In May 2019, it began talks with Marshfield Clinic, but both parties decided against combination and halted talks in December 2019.

Contact Jeff Bollier at (920) 431-8387 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @JeffBollier

This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Bellin, Gunderson near agreement on health care systems merger