Caught in the crossfire

Although local businesses would certainly be affected by Aurora Health Care’s proposal to build a new hospital in the Pabst Farms development near Oconomowoc, the business community in Waukesha County is being remarkably silent about the dispute.
Advocates for both Aurora and ProHealth Care Inc. are going door-to-door, trying to rally grassroots support for their opposing causes in Waukesha County. The issue has divided many of the neighbors who might have a vested interest in whether Aurora is successful in its bid to build the $85 million Town of Summit Aurora Medical Center.
Aurora contends the new hospital is needed because competition is good for the local health care market, and the western half of Waukesha County will need another hospital to support its population growth.
ProHealth Care, which owns Waukesha Memorial Hospital and Oconomowoc Memorial Hospital, argues that the new hospital is duplicative and unnecessary and will further drive up health care costs in a market that already has vacant hospital beds.
Caught in between these opposing forces are the businesses in Waukesha County. For the most part, however, the business community in the county is sitting out this controversial dance.
To be sure, local businesses may be caught in the crossfire. Do they support the local team (ProHealth Care) at the risk of alienating the inevitable market conqueror (Aurora)?
Several businesses leaders contacted in western Waukesha County were either not willing to take an official stance on the issue or declined to be involved in this report. One company executive said he supports Aurora but would not comment on the record.
Prominent business organizations such as the Waukesha County Economic Development Corporation (WCEDC), the Greater Oconomowoc Chamber of Commerce, the Hartland Chamber of Commerce, the Brookfield Economic Development Corporation, the Delafield Area Chamber of Commerce and the New Berlin Chamber of Commerce are not taking official stances on the controversy.
Many of the business organizations receive dues, sponsorships and other dollars from both Aurora and ProHealth Care.
"We’re cautious to give a comment because we realize it is a big issue, and we won’t have the opportunity to meet until the end of June to discuss the issue," said Stephanie Phillips, executive director of the Greater Oconomowoc Chamber. "For us, it is not an issue of one system or another, it is how our decision can best satisfy the mission of the chamber. We just need to devote more time to the issue as a board of directors.
Patti Wallner, president of the Waukesha County Chamber of Commerce, was unavailable for comment.
Carol White, the executive director of the Brookfield Chamber of Commerce, said her organization would only act as a reflection of the community it serves.
"Our position is that from a business organization standpoint, which is what we are, we really feel Aurora should have the right to put their position out there, as well as ProHealth Care, and to have the community that they serve have the ability to decide what is going to happen," White said.
Although the WCEDC is not taking a stand, the organization referred to the issues of spiraling health care costs and duplicative facilities during one of its Conversaction sessions in March 2002.
"Out-of-control, spiraling health care costs are impacting the bottom line of all businesses. Small businesses, in particular, are finding it more difficult and nearly impossible to pay for employee health insurance. Health care costs in the Milwaukee/Waukesha area are higher than in California or New York. Duplicative, un-needed health care facilities are being built – driving up the cost of health care. Employers have to shoulder the burden of underutilized facilities. Chambers need to work with local government to disallow duplication of expensive services. Chamber-sponsored seminars on what businesses can do to control health care costs."
However, Aurora was a corporate sponsor at WCEDC’s recent annual meeting. Bill Mitchell, executive director of the WCEDC, said businesses in Waukesha County have not changed their views on health care issues. The most recent Conversaction meeting regarding wellness was overbooked with businesses interested in the topic, according to Mitchell.
"The business community has reacted with concern for availability and affordability," Mitchell said. "If the expansion of services for Aurora, the Medical College, whoever, if it helps with availability and affordability because of competitiveness, then it’s a good thing."
In the 2002/2003 WCEDC annual report, demographic studies by Geo Marketing Inc. described Waukesha County as the fastest-aging county in Wisconsin, with 35 to 40 percent of its population currently over the age of 50. The report also states that Wisconsin is aging faster than the national rate.
Although these changes are still on the horizon, Mitchell said the business community is focused on possible health care availability problems in the future when looking at the Aurora issue.
"I can’t speak to the capacity needs currently, but we are more interested as an organization in the data we have collected on the aging population," Mitchell said. "The rate at which the Waukesha County population is aging generally means an availability of health care services and technical services is critical. If Aurora will help address that need, then we are for it."
Lori Fuhrmann, director of sales for Country Inn Hotel and Conference Center, Waukesha, referred to Oconomowoc as the "ultimate community," but she is still leaving the issue up to collective decision.
"I am very involved in the Oconomowoc community and have been for the last 14 years," Fuhrmann said. "The Oconomowoc hospital has been very good to us and to the community. If the community feels there is room for two hospitals, I will support whatever they feel. However, I do not want a business coming in that will take away from the lifestyle we have strived to build in that community."
June 11, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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Andrew is the editor of BizTimes Milwaukee. He joined BizTimes in 2003, serving as managing editor and real estate reporter for 11 years. A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, he is a lifelong resident of the state. He lives in Muskego with his wife, Seng, their son, Zach, and their dog, Hokey. He is an avid sports fan and is a member of the Muskego Athletic Association board of directors.

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