Changes at Sister Kenny

When Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute celebrated its 60th anniversary in December 2002, St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly issued a proclamation acknowledging that the Institute is “among the nation’s leading rehabilitation facilities, on the forefront of clinical research and technology development.” In recent years, Sister Kenny has been the recipient of research grant awards from the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute for Disability Rehabilitation Research.

Sister Kenny is Minnesota’s premier post-acute rehabilitation and outpatient facility, annually serving more than 60,000 people with spinal cord or brain injuries, as well as stroke survivors and others with neurological or muscular conditions. The inpatient program, unique in Minnesota because of its comprehensive array of services and focus on independent living, served 1,098 people in 2002 at the Abbott and United Hospital locations. A majority of those individuals were stroke, spinal cord or brain injury patients.

However, the current struggling economy and ongoing financial challenges have led to big changes at Abbott Northwestern, the hospital with which Sister Kenny was merged in 1975. Dozens of positions have been eliminated and some programs merged. Some in the disability community are now concerned about the organization’s commitment to rehabilitation services.

More than 70 hospital workers at Abbott Northwestern will lose their jobs, including the leadership team at the Sister Kenny Institute. Bobbie Dressen, vice president of operations at Abbott Northwestern, said the downsizing is “about workload redistribution. It will not impact the services provided.”

The current executive director and the director of inpatient services at Sister Kenny already have received layoff notices. Roseanne Ferguson, currently the director of neuroscience at Abbott Northwestern and a nurse by training, will be assuming the helm for the inpatient Sister Kenny Rehabilitation program at Abbott Northwestern and United Hospital. Dressen said Ferguson has “experience working with stroke patients and Parkinson’s patients.” The current duties of the director of outpatient services will not change. Dressen will assume the administrative duties of the current executive director.

Other changes will occur at Sister Kenny. The Arthritis and Fibromyalgia Clinic will be merged with Kenny Rehabilitation Associates, resulting in a reduction in 2.5 staff positions. Dressen said this is more an alignment of infrastructure so that “two departments will not be doing the same thing.” No change will be made to the Wound Clinic, which was eliminated in December 2000 and caused quite an uprising in the disability community. It was then reopened in July 2001.

Financial and reimbursement challenges have plagued the local and national rehabilitation industry in recent years, leading to the closure of many sub-acute wards and units. Locally, Fairview-University Hospital closed its rehabilitation unit just last year.

Recognizing the financial challenges that exist in providing quality rehabilitation services, the Sister Kenny Foundation was reconstituted as a nonprofit organization in 1999. (Its fund-raising history dates to the founding of Sister Kenny Institute in 1942.) The Foundation’s mission, according to its Web site, is to “raise funds that support Sister Kenny’s distinctive mission of ‘Making Lives Work’¼helping people reach their highest level of independence.”

The site goes on to say, “The conflicting realities of an increased demand for rehabilitation services and a decline in dollars to compensate for them requires Sister Kenny to seek alternative resources to accomplish its goal. Private gifts are more than a lifeline for Sister Kenny. They are the lifelines for each person who enters its doors.”

When asked if the changes at Sister Kenny would have any effect on the Foundation’s efforts, Michelle Keith, current chair of the Foundation Board, said “I would hope not. I think we remain true to our mission.” John Greving was recently named executive director of the Foundation after a nationwide search. He was not available for comment.

Keith noted that administrative oversight of Sister Kenny operations is “not within our purview” at the Foundation, and referred further inquiries to the Abbott media office.

For years, there was an independent board of directors for the Sister Kenny Institute, with representation from both the business community and disability leaders. It was abolished a few years ago and operational oversight was transferred to the Abbott Northwestern Board of Trustees. The current chairman of that board, Robert Ryan, was traveling and unavailable for comment.

Like Abbott Northwestern, many Minnesota hospitals are facing large layoffs. A May 24 Star Tribune article noted that 70 Abbott workers were issued pink slips due to declining hospital admissions. Regions Hospital recently shed 63 positions. St. Cloud Hospital has eliminated 35 and Hennepin County Medical Center has eliminated 190 positions. The article noted that efforts to control costs “in other areas” at Abbott were also being made. No reference was made to Sister Kenny.

At the same time, Abbott Northwestern is making substantial investments in other more profitable business areas. Ground was broken on a 128-bed, $100 million heart hospital in September 2002. The Star Tribune article also noted that Abbott is accelerating the planned new outpatient imaging center, that it “expects to bring in new revenue.”

The changes at Abbott and Sister Kenny have some advocates in the disability community concerned.

“Sister Kenny holds a critical place for short-term rehab in the disability community,” said Lolly Lijewski, head of the advocacy department at the Metropolitan Center for Independent Living. “Abbott and Allina [Health Systems], ultimately, have shown a commitment to the community for more than half a century. To seriously change or alter Sister Kenny’s contribution to the disability community calls their commitment into question.”

Dressen said that the commitment to Minnesotans with disabilities has not changed. “This will allow us to refocus and do better work for the community,” she said.

Lijewski is not alone in her concerns, but many contacted for this article did not wish to be quoted, including a representative of the state Department of Human Services.

Advocates are also concerned about Abbott and Kenny’s ongoing relationship with Minnesota’s disability community as well as a string of events including the change in operational oversight of Sister Kenny, the closing of the wound clinic, the closing of the vocational services department last year, and a recent lawsuit involving sign language interpreters. (See the April 2003 issue of Access Press for lawsuit details.)

“I want to think that Sister Kenny will always be there when we need it. Today I feel like I need to be reassured that that’s going to be the case.” Lijewski said.

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