Task forces offers support, with an asterisk, for University of Minnesota health center plans

A task force on academic health at the University of Minnesota is calling for a strategic plan across the U's training programs as well as increased emphasis and funding for workforce initiatives at a time when the state's health care system is struggling with shortages.

The group also offered qualified support for three priority proposals advanced by the U, including long-term plans that are still evolving for a new University of Minnesota Medical Center facility on the East Bank campus.

The final report and recommendations, which were released Monday, reflected the task force's broad scope of addressing both widespread workforce challenges as well as complicated issues at the U related to the future of its teaching hospital, which is owned by Minneaolis-based Fairview Health Services.

"The task force acknowledges that there is a current health care workforce crisis that is only projected to get worse, and also acknowledges that it is beyond this task force's scope or timeline to make satisfactory recommendations for exactly how to address the growing crisis," the final report states. "This recommendation instead asks the governor and Legislature to request and fund the development of a comprehensive health professions workforce."

Task force members were unanimous in calling for the U and Fairview to promptly conclude negotiations over their long-term affiliation, with some saying state money for the U's proposals shouldn't flow until a long-term deal with Fairview has been concluded. The U and Fairview jointly operate the M Health Fairview network of hospitals and clinics.

About two-thirds of task force members said they strongly supported a recommendation that includes the state launching this year a capital investment fund for the eventual replacement of the U hospital. About half of task force members said they mostly or completely supported the U's call for an additional $80 million per year in state funding to support medical research, primary care programs and improved access to care in underserved communities.

It now falls to Gov. Tim Walz and lawmakers to decide in the coming legislative session how quickly to move on any of the ideas vetted by the task force, which started meeting in October.

"I value the range of recommendations that the task force has submitted, and I look forward to working with the University of Minnesota, legislators and the broader health care system to achieve the long-term vision for a healthier Minnesota," Walz said in a statement.

Walz called last summer to create the 15-person expert panel in the wake of a failed merger proposal between Fairview and South Dakota-based Sanford Health. It was led by former state health commissioner Jan Malcolm with former governors Mark Dayton and Tim Pawlenty serving as advisers.

The U strongly opposed the proposed merger with Sanford and developed in response a plan for its academic health programs, which included regaining control of ownership of University of Minnesota Medical Center from Fairview. The five-point plan took the shape of three recommendations that received varying degrees of support from the task force.

"While the task force is generally supportive of these recommendations, members noted the need for additional financial details, transparency and accountability measures, as these proposals are further developed by [the university] for consideration by the Legislature," the final report stated.

On strategic planning at the U, the task force said the six schools of the health sciences need to jointly set goals and strategies for strengthening interprofessional learning and clinical training. The U of M is one of the few universities in the country to offer advanced training across such a broad set of disciplines — medicine, nursing, public health, pharmacy, dentistry and veterinary science.

The task force also called for a comprehensive workforce plan that addresses shortages and promotes diversity that better reflects Minnesota communities. A related recommendation calls for increased funding for a variety of strategies to diversity and fill current and future gaps in the health care workforce.

"The task force is recommending strategic investments, within certain parameters, not just to support the [university's] academic health system of today, but most significantly, to support the broader health system and workforce needs of the future," the final report said. "Future education, health care and workforce environments will be dramatically different from what we have today and will require new collaboration within [the university] and across the community with other health care and educational partners."

Much of the public debate around health programs at the U was initiated by the Sanford-Fairview merger proposal, which emerged in late 2022.

Throughout its deliberations, the task force stayed out of the business relationship between the U and Fairview, even though the result of their negotiations are crucial to the future of the U's health programs. Those talks, which are ongoing, will determine ongoing financial support from Fairview as well as the health system's degree of ownership or control at University of Minnesota Medical Center.

"Robust task force discussions included both a desire to stabilize current programs at the university that some viewed as in crisis, as well as arguments advocating strongly for investments in a very different model of workforce training that will be less physician and inpatient hospital focused and much more interdisciplinary...," the final report stated. "Some members felt the case for additional funding is sufficiently clear now without condition, others felt additional funding should be contingent on a number of changes both within the university and in the broader market."