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Woodbury hospital seeks help from Minnesota lawmakers

Woodwinds Health Campus officials are hoping an exception request at the state Capitol will lead to expanded cancer treatment at the Woodbury hospital.

House lawmakers are expected to hear a bill this week that would temporarily lift a moratorium on radiation therapy facility expansion at Woodwinds.

Hospital officials say the request, which would relocate existing equipment from St. John's Hospital in Maplewood to Woodwinds, is aimed at improving access for cancer patients in and around the Woodbury area.

"It is not an easy health care service to endure," Tom Schmitt, CEO of Woodwinds, said of chemotherapy. "So having it close to home is really a win for the people in our Woodbury service area."

In addition to granting the Woodwinds exception, the amended bill establishes a strict set of criteria regulating the construction of future radiation therapy treatment facilities in a 14-county area in and around the Twin Cities.

The bill, which passed through the Senate Health and Human Services Committee last week, does not permanently lift the moratorium - an element that could pose a hurdle for some lawmakers.

Also in the legislative hopper is a bill seeking to lift the moratorium entirely, which Rep. Andrea Kieffer, R-Woodbury, is backing. She and others have supported lifting the moratorium, which they consider a barrier to the free market.

"I don't believe the government should be picking and choosing winners and losers," Kieffer said.

Schmitt knows opposition to the moratorium is strong, but he and others at Woodwinds said they're feeling more confident than ever this year that the hospital's request will gain traction at the Legislature.

Roger Green, vice president of strategy, policy, marketing and communications at HealthEast Care System - the parent organization to which Woodwinds belongs - said he has received strong indications from legislative leaders that the bill can gather momentum this session.

"(It) makes us reasonably optimistic that it's going to find its way through both houses," he said, calling the support "a major breakthrough on this issue, no question about it."

Moratorium history

Both Kieffer and Sen. Ted Lillie, R-Lake Elmo, described the issue as thorny and complex - one where heavily invested Capitol players have battled for years on either side of the moratorium.

"I relate this to a Rubick's Cube and not a checker board," Lillie said.

Those close to the issue say the moratorium went into effect as an attempt to control the expansion of radiation treatment centers not connected with hospitals. Green said "proliferation" of those for-profit centers threatened to drive up health-care costs, noting that they typically cost about $1 million.

"The legislative response was to put a moratorium on the centers," he said.

That had a direct impact on Minnesota Oncology, which is located adjacent from the Woodwinds campus at the CornerStone Medical Specialty Centre.

"The legislation was aimed at one entity, and that was us," said Randy Thompson, executive director of Minnesota Oncology.

The private cancer treatment center was in the process of adding a radiation therapy facility when the Legislature intervened.

Thompson said he "respectively disagrees" with the notion that the expansion of radiation treatment facilities is worth regulating to stem health care costs.

"You don't create demand in radiation therapy," he said. "You don't increase volume because you increase capacity."

Support for bill

Lillie, whose wife Lynne is the medical director at Woodwinds, said he supports legislation granting Woodwinds a reprieve from the moratorium. He said the reason he doesn't want it lifted completely, however, is because for-profit cancer centers can select their patients, while hospitals cannot, and must accept patients who can't afford to pay.

But Thompson said Minnesota Oncology also provides uncompensated care.

"I don't agree with the contention that we don't," he said.

Lillie acknowledged arguments like Kieffer's but said he doesn't see a system comprised of closely competing for-profit and nonprofit cancer treatment centers representing a level playing field.

"(There is) not a free market opportunity here," said Lillie. "This moratorium should continue to be in place and there should be an exception for HealthEast to move one of their two machines (to Woodbury)."

Thompson said Minnesota Oncology is supportive of the latest version of the bill, since it allows patients in its geographic footprint - specifically, Woodbury - to receive closer care, even if it is at Woodwinds.

"It's a step in the right direction," the Woodbury resident said, adding that the company still opposes regulation of oncology services. "We're willing to take the good with the bad."

Thompson said his company also supports a provision of the bill that calls for a study to determine the capacity and need for radiation therapy services in Minnesota.

"We strongly support the study," he said. "They need an objective study of demand and capacity in order to make informed decisions on this issue."

Like Green, Lillie also said he is receiving strong indications the bill could pass this year. He said Senate Democrats have told him Gov. Mark Dayton would sign such a bill.

Green said a House committee is expected to take up the Woodwinds bill this week.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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