By Ed Nadolski

Editor in Chief

When word leaked out in November 2012 that Aurora Health Care planned to close the obstetrics department at Memorial Hospital of Burlington, few people saw it as anything more than a public relations nightmare for the state’s largest health care provider.

Fourteen months later, however, it’s not a stretch to say that that little slip of the lip launched a rush of actions and reactions that roused a proud community, rallied local physicians and likely changed the course of the state’s largest health care provider in our area.

“Had that not happened,” Burlington City Administrator Kevin Lahner said of the premature announcement, “it wouldn’t have gone down this way.”

Lahner said he believes it was a perfect storm of circumstances that forced both Aurora and local officials to step back and seriously consider what the future of health care should look like in the Burlington/Walworth County area.

The city didn’t blink – but neither did Aurora. Instead the two entities strapped on roller skates and went about determining what is best for each individually and as mutual stakeholders.

And in the wake of considerable consternation – like a couple on the verge of separation – the entities decided they are better off making the most of their marriage rather than working against each other.

The result was revealed Friday when Aurora announced it will invest $100 million in the Burlington and Walworth County market to include $30 million in upgrades at Aurora Memorial Hospital of Burlington and Aurora Lakeland Medical Center near Elkhorn, and $70 million for physician recruitment and new facilities, including an ambulatory surgery center and clinic on Burlington’s western edge.

Burlington officials get the confirmation they sought – a commitment from Aurora that keeps a hospital in the city for the foreseeable future – and Aurora gets to advance its mission in an already profitable market without the threat of municipally aided competition cutting in.

Mayor won’t gloat

The ball that got rolling with the announcement of the obstetrics department closing shifted into warp speed when Mayor Bob Miller drew a line in the sand and said he wanted to retain a full-service hospital in Burlington even if it meant enticing competing health care providers to come to Burlington.

However, even he was surprised with the response he received. Not too long after the words left his mouth, United Hospital System of Kenosha expressed serious interest in pursuing a hospital in Burlington.

Miller said two other competing providers expressed interest if Aurora one day moved the hospital out of Burlington.

The mayor, whose wife works for Aurora at Memorial Hospital, admitted the issue created more than a few sleepless nights for him.

All along, he said, the goal was to obtain some kind of commitment from Aurora to maintain a robust presence in Burlington – including a hospital.

City officials said they had “strong evidence” one of Aurora’s options – if not its preferred option – was to build a new regional medical center in Lake Geneva that would largely replace the Burlington and Elkhorn hospitals. Miller said the city was aware that Aurora had an option to purchase land large enough to accommodate a hospital in the Lake Geneva area.

Aurora maintains that it frequently seeks such parcels of land as it examines its options in any given market. Adam Beeson, a senior communications official with Aurora, added Friday that the Burlington area was always among the top options for additional facilities despite any appearances otherwise.

However, Aurora didn’t pursue the Burlington ambulatory surgery center site until recent months – after Aurora Medical Group Executive Vice President Jeffrey Bailet announced in May 2012 that Aurora officials were taking a step back to reconsider the future of the Burlington-Walworth market.

While Burlington’s actions certainly got Aurora’s attention, Miller was quick to acknowledge on Monday that his “line in the sand” was just one of the factors that played into Aurora’s decision to give serious (re)consideration to the Burlington area.

“As time went on, I began to realize we were a small cog in the overall wheel,” he said.

Lisa Just, president of the Burlington/Walworth market for Aurora also downplayed the events of the past year as steering Friday’s announcement. She said the decision was based on the current health care environment and what’s best for the entire Burlington/Walworth market.

The perfect storm

Which brings us back to Kevin Lahner’s perfect storm of circumstances.

In amongst the critical cries of the community over the closing of obstetrics, the city’s discussions with competing providers and the pleas of local doctors to continue to invest in the Burlington hospital, were the realities of a changing health care industry.

In the current environment, Aurora has acknowledged that flashy facilities now take a back seat to services and accessibility.

“It’s not about facilities, it’s about people,” Aurora’s Just said Friday.

 This is a solution both the city and Aurora can build on – together.

In the end, Burlington was reminded of the benefits of a solid regional health system and Aurora, for its part, again realized the power of community.

Where those two paths cross is the place most of us live. And that, in this instance, is a good thing for the people of Burlington.