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Pending sale of Clearwater Health Services causes some concerns among nurses

A group of nurses from Bagley met with representatives with the Minnesota Nurses Association Nov. 11 to discuss the sale of Clearwater Health Services to Cocoon Holdings LLC, a company located in Grand Forks, N.D.

According to a press release posted on the MNA website Nov. 12, the nurses met with MNA representatives to discuss concerns about the sale. The release stated the nurses said they were given little information about the sale and were concerned they would have to re-apply to keep their jobs.

Clearwater County is in the process of selling the Clearwater County Memorial Hospital, Clearwater Health Services Clinic and Clearwater Ambulance Services to Cocoon Holdings. According to Clearwater County Auditor Allen Paulson, the county entered into a Contract for Deed with Cocoon with the intention of the medical facilities to be purchased by Dec. 31, 2010.

Since January 2009, the county has also held an agreement with Monarch Consulting Services Inc., a company based out of Bottineau, N.D., to handle the management of the county's medical facilities until the entities are sold.

County Commissioner Tom Anderson said there are two reasons the county opted to sell CHS, which has been an enterprise of the county for decades.

First, Anderson said, the county had been losing money on the facilities, which was "putting a burden on taxpayers."

Second, he added, the county was looking for an arrangement that would help preserve and potentially improve the health care facilities.

"It wasn't that the county wanted to get out of health care; it was just looking for a different arrangement for health care," Anderson said.

CHS employs more than two dozen registered nurses and licensed practical nurses at the hospital and clinic. Many of the employees are members of the MNA.

Jodie Omang, a nurse at CHS and MNA member, said at the Nov. 11 meeting she expressed her concerns over the potential sale of the hospital and clinic to a company she referred to as a North Dakota-owned, for-profit company.

"I am concerned over the sale of our community hospital to a company has no ties to our community," Omang said in a phone interview.

But according to Anderson, CHS will be renamed Clearwater Health and will be set up as a 501c3 nonprofit organization.

Anderson said at one point, the county had been in arrangements with MeritCare (now Sanford Health), which previously managed CHS.

"But the deal fell apart," Anderson said. "It didn't materialize."

In the MNA press release, Omang stated at the Nov. 11 meeting, "Why aren't we being communicated with? Why aren't the taxpayers of Clearwater County, which owns CHS, being given the opportunity for a public conversation or an explanation for this transaction? This is a situation that could significantly impact one of our community's largest public assets."

In response to hearing of the press release, Anderson said the selling of CHS has not been a secret. When it was sold two years ago, he said, it had been advertised.

"We had three different proposals honored, including MeritCare," Anderson said. "That wouldn't have been a secret to the nurses' association."

Anderson said some public meetings were held. Meetings that were closed were for labor negotiations or the sale of the property.

As for the issue of employees having their positions terminated and having to re-apply for their jobs, Anderson said this process is normal under new management.

"New ownership offers new contracts through the new owner," Anderson said. "The intent is not to fire anyone, but any time you hire a management to manage for you, they would have authority to fire or hire."

Anderson said the county looks forward to successfully completing the sale.

"We want to have a successful business here," he said. "That has been our goal from the get-go."

MNA representative John Nemo said the situation between the CHS employees, the county and the management and consulting companies is unique to contract negotiation issues with the MNA.

"This case is a little different," Nemo said in a phone interview. "In this case, questions are being raised about the entity that is taking ownership. I think this is where things are in flux right now. So much of negotiations depend on knowing that a solid ownership is in place. There needs to be more transparencies from county officials."

Representatives from Cocoon Holdings LLC, Monarch Consulting Services Inc. and Aurora Health Services did not respond to requests for an interview. Kathy Olson, a MNA representative, also did not respond.